Geoff FordenWhat Does Natanz Cost?

Iran is obviously investing a lot of its political, intellectual, and financial resources into the Natanz enrichment center. But can we come up with a figure for how much it has cost Iran? Perhaps we can estimate it based on costs associated with Western equivalents. I have attempted to do this below. The result is simply a ballpark figure and I should warning you that making budget estimates, just as making sausages, is not a pretty sight!

Warning: What follows might not be suitable reading for the infirm or small children!

Centrifuge Production Know-how…$75 million
Industrial know-how, the techniques actually used by the shop-floor workers, is vitally important for the successful production of any sophisticated item. Unfortunately, it is determined by how much the market will bear. How then should we estimate it? I decided to look at how much Iraq paid (or, rather, was willing to pay) for the know-how to build an advanced solid-propellant missile, the Badr-2000 (aka the Condor II). This know-how cost is explicitly stipulated in the contract Iraq signed with its supplier state: $75 M, after correcting for inflation. It could be argued that Iran might be willing to pay considerably more for the know-how for centrifuge production but any such guess would be just that. (This, as I warned you, is the ugly part.)

Construction of the underground facility…$55 million
ISIS has done a great job in following the construction of the Natanz facility using satellite reconnaissance. Assuming that the holes dug for the “cut-and-cover” enrichment halls are 25 meters deep, then the excavation costs (at $3 per cubic yard) is $7 M. The concrete, at $70/cubic yard, (and assuming floors, ceiling, and walls are 2 meters thick), is then $37 M. Those do not add up to the $55 M but if you assume a 50% “penalty” for working in a desert, then that’s what you get. (Again, ugly.)

Centrifuge production…$140 million
Given that Iran bought the know-how and initial production lines (production equipment not included, ugly!), I am only estimating the cost per centrifuge here. That comes from the cost per centrifuge for URENCO centrifuges as being leased to France. (Ugly, ugly! Let me be clear before somebody takes offense: when I say ugly, I mean my method of estimating is ugly.) You could argue that URENCO centrifuges are more sophisticated and therefore should cost more. Or you could argue that cost is determined by the relative level of sophistication of the production line compared to the past experience of the producer. (That’s what I assume; ugly, ugly, ugly!) I then get a per centrifuge cost of $20,000. Seven thousand of them therefore means a total of $140 M. The one thing that does not make sense is to cost them per SWU; manufacturers produce centrifuges not SWUs.

Grand total cost = $270 million and counting


  1. Rwendland (History)

    Not sure if this helps, but this presentation claims that the LES National Enrichment Facility at Eunice, NM costs about $3 billion for 5.9 million SWU “at full capacity”.

    If we guess that the centrifuges cost $2 billion, that works out at $340/SWU. I don’t know anything about centrifuge economics, but that sounds pretty cheap.

    Wouldn’t that make a modern 40 SWU centrifuge (URENCO/LES ?) about $13,600? A bit less than your estimate from the French leased costs.

  2. Murray Anderson (History)

    Urenco centrifuges produce around 40 SWU/year and run for 20 years or more. Iranian centrifuges might do 2-4 SWU units/year, and it would be surprising if they ran for 10 years. So the total production would be 800 SWU/centrifuge for the ones the French are going to use, versus 20-40 for Iranian centrifuges. If you up the price 3 or 4 times for Iranian inexperience and inefficiency, then that’s a couple thousand per centrifuge, say $14 million altogether.
    If they can produce them at all, the centrifuges will be cheap. The difficulty will be in parts they have to import.

  3. Geoff Forden (History)

    Rwendland: Thanks, that is actually what I used to estimate the cost per centrifuge. However, I do not think that the buildings cost a billion dollars. It does, presumably, include the ancillary equipment, such as autoclaves and UF6 cooling/extraction equipment. However, those scale with the number of centrifuges so I have included their costs as part of the centrifuge cost. This does, unfortunately, fold in the building costs but, as I said, budget estimation is a dirty business.

  4. Captain_Canuck

    Of course, these facilities represent only a portion of their total investment in nuclear technology.

    The US Dept of Energy budget should be required reading for any national leadership considering embarking upon the acquisition or development of nuclear weapons. (“Wait – does that say $6.7 BILLION?”, “What do you mean that doesn’t include actual production?”,“These are ANNUAL numbers?”)

    Perhaps Jeffrey could offer a course through the University of Maryland, “Financial Planning Considerations for Prospective Nuclear Weapons States”? Between Syria and Iran, I’m sure we could fill a first class. Not sure if NK would qualify for a student loan, though.

  5. Anon

    Iran GDP: $842 billion
    (2008 est.)
    World Fact Book

    U.S. Congress spills more than $6.7 bil/yr.

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