Jeffrey LewisDG Report On Iran (GOV/2008/38)

Speaking of Vienna, the IAEA DG report on Iran is on the ISIS website (Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007) and 1803 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran, GOV/2008/38, 15 September 2008).

The bottom line is that Iran has 2,952 centrifuges in one module and 820-984 in a second. Overall, the Iranians seem to be moving right along. David Albright and Jackie Shire estimate the Iranians are operating the centrifuges about 85 percent of the time — which is consistent with what I see:

Operating Period Number UF6 Fed (in KG) Efficiency
2007-2008 of Cascades Actual Expected (Actual/Expected)
12 December-06 May (146 days) 18-20 2,300 4,415-4,906 0.47-0.52
06 May-30 August (116 days) 18-23 3,630 3,508-4,482 0.81-1.03

Author estimates derived from IAEA Reports.

Note that, with 103 percent of the minimum, we can’t exclude continuous operation of the A26 module over the most recent period.

Iran is also feeding hex into the IR-1, -2 and -3 centrifuges at the PFEP. (I still think we have the best open source discussion of the IR-3 right here on the blog.)

About that Hex (UF6)

A couple of days ago Con Coughlin and Tim Butcher published an article in the Daily Telegraph that stated Iran had diverted some Hex from the conversion facility as Isfahan:

Nuclear experts responsible for monitoring Iran’s nuclear programme have discovered that enough enriched uranium, which if processed to weapons grade level could be used to make up to six atom bombs, has disappeared from the main production facility at Isfahan.

The article smelled fishy to me, and not just because I think that wrapping fish and chips is the only appropriate use for the Telegraph.

The story seemed patently false, but now we have a statement from the IAEA’s Melissa Fleming. The statement is available from an Iranian website, but I confirmed the authenticity of the statement with a colleague:

“The article, entitled ‘Iran renews nuclear weapons development’ published in [Friday’s] Daily Telegraph by Con Coughlin and Tim Butcher is fictitious,” IAEA Spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said in a statement.

IAEA inspectors have no indication that any nuclear material is missing from the plant,” reads the statement….

For emphasis, the DG’s Report also makes clear that all UF6 is under safeguards:

This brings the total amount of uranium in the form of UF6 produced at UCF since March 2004 to 342 tonnes, all of which remains under Agency containment and surveillance.

[Emphasis mine]

Even terrible reporting, however, can be a teachable moment. And I have been waiting for a good opportunity to share “The gas centrifuge and nuclear weapons proliferation” by Houston G. Wood, Alexander Glaser, and R. Scott Kemp. Wood et al argue in Physics Today that UF6 production is the easiest step to safeguard in the enrichment process:

Safeguards might also address the covert-facility problem by safeguarding flows of unenriched UF6, starting at the facilities where the UF6 is produced. Traditionally, that material has received relatively little attention. Monitoring unenriched UF6 more carefully can make its diversion to a covert plant more difficult. Thus, although direct detection of covert plants may not be possible, safeguards can make it more difficult to operate those plants with undeclared feed.

I learned a lot in that article; I hope you do too.


  1. Josh Pollack

    The idea of making a UCF one’s primary monitoring chokepoint naturally raises the question of how detectable a duplicate, potentially scaled-down UCF would be. Perhaps it could sit right next to the duplicate, potentially scaled-down centrifuge plant.

    And if the second UCF cannot be detected more reliably than the second centrifuge plant, would that perhaps make the uranium mine itself the proper monitoring chokepoint?

  2. Yale Simkin (History)

    Iran is moving inexorably towards accumulating sufficient LEU to provide a breakout capability (about 4000 SWUs) to produce an implosion bomb.

    They are proceeding at precisely the rate that I have long predicted.

    By the end of this August they had produced 480 kilograms of UF6 at somewhere around 3.8% enrichment.

    This is equals 1590 Separative Work Units.

    Back in April of 2007 I posted a table estimating total enrichment by month – reposted here.

    The boxed numbers represented the date when a bomb’s worth of SWU have accumulated.

    The green boxes represented diverted Bushehr fuel as feedstock, and the red boxes show enrichment from natural ore feedstock.

    By spring of next year (or earlier) Iran will have crossed another threshold. (The first threshold was crossed when our good buddies, the Russians, delivered 70+ tons of reactor LEU)

    Quoting myself from back in December of 2007

    “It is surprising that not only (is the NIE) … assuming a 2010-2015 timespan, they seem to be strongly biased towards the 2015 end of the spectrum (with only a nod to the 2009 possibility).

    I fear that they (and we) are going to be sadly surprised when Iran accumulates 4000 SWU of LEU in 2009.

  3. hass (History)

    Note that in the Aug 2007 Modalities Agreement with the IAEA, Iran agreed to address the list of “outstanding issues” – along with “alleged studies”:

    As a sign of good will and cooperation with the Agency, upon receiving all related documents, Iran will review and inform the Agency of its assessment.

    Note further that according the Feb 2008 IAEA report, Iran had in fact addressed all the outstanding issues, and no evidence of any nuclear weapons program had been found in Iran — thus giving Iran a clean bill of health except of the same ‘alleged studies’.

    However, according to the IAEA reports, the IAEA has not presented Iran with the documentation about the “alleged studies” that Iran is supposed to refute (because the US refuses to permit the IAEA to do so.)

    And they say Iran is “stonewalling”?? LOL!

  4. Steven Dolley (History)

    “diverted Bushehr fuel as feedstock”

    Very low cred scenario. This stuff is under IAEA safeguards, which admittedly have many limitations, but can probably keep pretty good track of 70 MT of fresh LWR fuel elements.

    How long would Iran have to enrich diverted Bushehr LEU before the Israelis reacted? Closer to hours or a few days than weeks or months, I’d suspect. It probably wouldn’t even be completely decladded before the cruise missiles arrived.

  5. Josh


    Nice chart.

    What kind of surprise do you have in mind?


  6. kme

    Yale, what do you think of the suggestion in the <i>Physics Today</i> paper Jeffrey linked that holding LEU in the form of UO rather than UF6 adds some assurance?

  7. J House (History)

    342 tons of UF6 would easily fit in a single container ship. It may be possible for the IAEA to monitor the indigenous production of Iranian UF6, but what about a past or future delivery from a 3rd nation? The IAEA missed the Khan shipments of a turn-key bomb program to Libya.
    The USIC also cannot be relied upon to monitor Iran’s progress with perfect knowledge and its track record pre-Iraq war speaks for itself.
    The report is just more proof that Iran continues to move closer to the nexus point.

  8. Carey Sublette (History)

    “How long would Iran have to enrich diverted Bushehr LEU before the Israelis reacted?”

    Steven alludes to an important point: that Iran must carefully manage its breakout to declared nuclear status.

    Yale’s chart is very useful, but passing the SWU threshold for a nuclear bomb, while having all of the enriched material in the form of LEU, does not give Iran a bomb. They still need a topping cascade somewhere to convert it to HEU.

    Most likely Iran will accumulate a number of bomb’s worth of LEU before they take the fateful step of converting it to bomb-grade material. This is similar to Pakistan’s approach during the 1980s and early 1990s.

    So placing the breakout date after 2010 seems much more plausible than thinking they will do it in 2009.

  9. Steven Dolley (History)

    It’s not just a question of “managing” a breakout by reenriching Bushehr LEU, if that’s indeed what they intend. It’s a question of whether the Iranians believe they could successfully and covertly complete that process, and weaponization of the resulting HEU, before being bombed into oblivion. Are they that big risk-takers?

  10. Harry Lime (History)

    Rather oddly I find myself leaping (well crawling, this post is 4 days old) to the defence of the Daily Telegraph – rather more of a Grauniad (as James would put it) man myself but I must admit that the DT’s obituaries tend to be better and I fear the Tory rag is being criticised rather too harshly in the original post.

    Putting aside the journalistic hyperbole there’s an interesting point which might easily be missed. Isfahan doesnt’t isotopically enrich uranium but it does chemically enrich it in the sense that it purifies yellow cake prior to converting to hex. If the article is read with the understanding that ‘enriched uranium’ means ‘purified uranium’ then it’s not too bad piece – whether use of this definition is due to a deliberate attempt to mislead or merely ignorance isn’t clear (we are talking about the Telegraph after all – see, my true colours are coming out).

    At first the article says just that there’s less U as UF6 than might be expected given the amount of yellow cake fed. This might be true without the second statement that hex is missing necessarily being so. Use of UF6 in the second statement rather than just U may again be ignorance but it makes a big difference. Whilst the HEX is under IAEA safeguards, the yellow cake isn’t and it might be argued that the Iranian’s are not striclty in breach of their obligations had they indeed siphoned of some of the material before it reached the ‘starting point of safeguards’. Hence if it was yellow-cake or an intermediate product that the Iranians had removed then perhaps IAEA inspectors would “have no indication that any nuclear material is missing from the plant”.

  11. Mark (History)

    This is just the NeoCON-artists new version of “IRAQ has WMDS!”
    “Oops! What we really meant was IRAN has the WMDs!”
    Soon they will have a form:

    “______________has WMDs! We must invade to stop the aggressors!” (fill in blank)

    Fool us once, shame on you
    Fool us twice-shame on us