Joshua PollackIran's Equinox: FMP Comes Online

Cross-posted from

As visitors to the White House website know, today is the Zoroastrian new year, No Ruz (“New Day”), which is celebrated by pretty much all Iranians. It marks the vernal equinox, the transition between seasons.

According to the Iranian Students News Agency, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) plans to mark the occasion by formally inaugurating the Fuel Manufacturing Plant (FMP) in Isfahan. It’s already partly operational:

The plant is in a good condition and is able to produce nuclear fuel assemblies for Iran’s Arak 40-megawatt research reactor which is to be launched within the next two or three years, [deputy AEOI chief Abdullah Solatasana] added.

The Plant is able to produce nuclear fuel assemblies for Iran’s Bushehr and Darkhovin power plants respectively with 1000 and 360 megawatts capability, Solatasana said.

The Head of (AEOI) Gholam Reza Aghazadeh has already declared nuclear fuel tablets for Arak reactor have been produced according to global standards.

(On that last point, see also paragraph 10 of the latest IAEA report.)

Bad News and Good News

So where does this transition take the situation? It makes matters worse in the medium run, but if the Iranians play it smart, it could also ease the immediate atmosphere of crisis.

The bad news is, the Arak reactor is ideally suited for plutonium production, as Robert Einhorn has explained. Preparing Arak’s natural uranium (NU) fuel at the FMP moves events closer to the North Korea-style confrontation, ca. 1994 that hovers on the horizon.

The good news is, the same facility could be used to relax the already acute tensions over the enrichment of uranium. Scott Kemp recently pointed this out to the New York Times:

If Iran wanted to ease jitters, it could do something very simple: turn its enriched uranium into reactor fuel.

“We’d hope they’d do it unilaterally, and maybe they will,” R. Scott Kemp, a nuclear expert at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, said in an interview. So far, though, Iran has foregone that step and keeps the door open to further enrich a growing uranium supply.

Now, nobody with intact critical faculties really thinks the so-called fuel enrichment plant at Natanz was originally meant to make enriched reactor fuel, and if the idea is energy production, there’s certainly little point in operating it today. Russia supplies the fuel for Bushehr, and completing the Darkhovin reactor hasn’t been a high priority, as Frank Pabian has pointed out. In any case, Iran lacks the uranium to fuel either of these reactors. But going ahead anyway and turning low-enriched uranium (LEU) into fuel rods would materially demonstrate what Iranian spokesmen have repeatedly asserted about the peaceful nature of the nuclear project. And that would buy time for everyone involved.


  1. b (History)

    Now, nobody with intact critical faculties really thinks the so-called fuel enrichment plant at Natanz was originally meant to make enriched reactor fuel, and if the idea is energy production, there’s certainly little point in operating it today. Russia supplies the fuel for Bushehr, and completing the Darkhovin reactor hasn’t been a high priority, as Frank Pabian has pointed out. In any case, Iran lacks the uranium to fuel either of these reactors.

    Why the first claim? Why would Natanz not be build for reactor fuel production. It’s end capacity will be some 50,000 centrifuges. The halls were build big enough for that. To produce high enriched uranium for bombs could be done with a much smaller installation. So I don’t get what that statement is based on.

    Russia now supplying fuel for Bushehr does not mean it will do so tomorrow. To strive for national autonomy and independence from political pressure is a quite good motive for Iranian enrichment.

    The numbers of Iranian local natural Uranium deposits vary widely.

    Please let us know the numbers you have and where they are based upon. What was the last time an independent assessment, which would include work on the ground, has been made.

    Anyway – why should Iran not import natural Uranium from elsewhere to enrich (and probably export) nuclear fuel. Why should that highly profitable economic activity be reserved for a few western countries and Russia?

  2. Josh (History)


    I can see now that I was asking for trouble by putting it that way. You ask some fair questions, so I’ll answer them as best as I can.

    > Why would Natanz not be build for reactor fuel production?

    Several reasons. I’ll hit the high points.

    First, the program originated in the late 1980s, when Iran was in the grips of a national emergency involving bombs and missiles falling on its cities and CW being used against its troops. The Iraqi side started work on a similar set of programs at right about the same time, and they certainly weren’t thinking about the supposed inadequacy of fossil fuel resources three decades onward.

    Second, the program was pursed in secrecy. Every prior secret enrichment facility has been for weapons purposes.

    Third, it was hidden deep underground in a site designed to appear as if there were no underground spaces. There’s no reason to do this if had been meant for civilian purposes.

    Bear in mind that the war with Iraq was long since ended by the time work started at Natanz, and nothing similar was being done with the rebuilt Bushehr reactor, even though it had been bombed by the Iraqis several times during the war.

    Fourth, even after the Natanz site had come to the attention of the world, the Iranians went to terrific lengths to hide the existence of centrifuge programs (and laser enrichment programs) from the IAEA. Just read the IAEA reports. Again, not what’s done with a civilian program.

    Fifth, the Iranian military is intimately involved with the IR-1 centrifuge program at a minimum. Many of the specialized components of the IR-1 have been produced at the workshops of the Defense Industries Organization, the state-owned arms maker, which is controlled by the armed forces. Again, see the IAEA reports.

    Sixth, if they had simply wanted LEU fuel, it’s much cheaper to buy it from established sources than to go to the extraordinary cost and trouble of developing the means to do so independently but not very efficiently.

    Concerns about the reliability of supply don’t wash. Iran’s claims about the scale of its LWR ambitions vastly outstrip its resources in the ground, so importation of U in whatever form cannot be avoided. The supposed solution is the problem itself, as outside supply is needed, and there’s no better way to alienate would-be suppliers than clandestine fuel cycle work within the NPT.

    Finally, to respond to your specific suggestion, the size of the Natanz centrifuge halls certainly does not exclude military purposes. The bigger, the better, in fact: you can make more bombs that way, and sooner.

    That Iran has now undergone economic sanctions and flirted with war for the sake of this and other nuclear programs merely underscores that this isn’t about making LEU fuel; you can decide for yourself if it’s now about pride, about getting the bomb, or about having a “virtual” bomb, but this is no way to get LEU.

    > Please let us know the numbers you have and where they are based upon

    I rely on the OECD-IAEA Red Book, the standard reference in the field. It uses numbers provided by national authorities. So basically, it’s the Iranians themselves telling us that they don’t have anything near the uranium in the ground needed to support their ultimate ambitions. Certainly enough for some bombs, though. This is not anomalous, either; the Middle East and South Asia are quite uranium-poor in general. Small blessings.

    > Anyway – why should Iran not import natural Uranium from elsewhere to enrich (and probably export) nuclear fuel. Why should that highly profitable economic activity be reserved for a few western countries and Russia?

    Because there’s no conceivable way that Iran could be competitive on the world market. The efficiency of advanced centrifuges is beyond the wildest dreams of the Natanz facility as a national facility. We’re talking a difference of two orders of magnitude. One of the potential attractions of creating a multinational facility at Natanz, in fact, would be to get access to current technology.

    By now, it should be apparent why I made only a passing reference to all this in the actual blog entry…

    Having said all this, it would still be an excellent idea for the Iranians to prove me wrong by turning their entire stockpile of LEU into fuel rods as rapidly as possible. Go on, AEOI, I dare you to make fuel rods!

  3. Omid (History)

    Good job Josh.I hope it goes in the good way.Not only Iranians but also many people in Tajikitan,Pakistan and Afghanistan celebrate ancient Nowruz.
    Have a good year!

  4. b (History)

    Thanks for answers Josh.

  5. bts (History)

    You are right about Iran, but you tend to ignore the role of US and EU, as if US and Europeans respect Iran’s rights in accordance to NPT.

    I am not sure where you get some of your information. Iran’s nuclear program didn’t start in 1980s. It started in 1960s with US help, it picked up in 1970s including the construction of Bushehr reactor by Germans, contracts for 20 additional reactors, plans for uranium enrichment with France and so on. The program was canceled in 1979. Iran-Iraq war had obvious influence on Iran’s strategy, but Iran just didn’t have the resources to start a nuclear program. The program didn’t pickup until 1990s.

    Subsequently US started demanding that Iran should abandon its nuclear program altogether. Western diplomats have repeatedly said “Iran should give up its rights”. Iran asked for help to resume work on Bushehr reactor but was rebuffed. Iran managed to get Russia’s help, but US pressured Russia to stop the work.

    Next, Iran’s indigenous program started to pick up, at that point Russia agreed to resume its work. This was part of the so-called “carrot and stick approach”. Note, Iran wouldn’t get any carrot if she didn’t have its own program, the West would still be waving its stick.

    This is in violation of NPT which says non-nuclear countries can get help with their nuclear technology in exchange for promise of peacefulness…

    Instead US keeps adding sanctions and increasing pressure. Iran starts relying more and more on its own technology. In this atmosphere Iran doesn’t gain anything by staying in NPT (aside from getting some political points). The result is the exact opposite of what is intended by NPT. At some point Iran may decide to leave NPT.

    Moreover Iran is not obligated to report everything. For example Iran can begin construction of enrichment plant and report it before the widgets are tested and go on-line. The rules don’t say Iran must construct the plant in such ways that Israel or some other US client could easily blow it up.

    About Laser enrichment, this is not a proven technology as far as I know. Iran experimented with this at microscopic level and did not report it. It’s really pushing it to describe this as NPT violation or some clandestine nuclear weapons program. Iran is also toying with nuclear fusion, it’s not something of any significance.

  6. Josh (History)


    I get my information from the IAEA’s reports, by and large. And they say that Iran’s centrifuge enrichment program started with discussions with the AQ Khan network in the mid-to-late 1980s.

    Reading the IAEA Director-General’s reports is the price of entry to any serious discussion of the subject.

  7. kme

    On your second and third points (which I might concisely restate as “hiding and hardening” of the enrichment facilities), there’s somewhat of a vicious circle in place here.

    Open and soft-target nuclear infrastructure in this area tends to get bombed (eg Osirak). This creates an incentive to hide and harden it; this hiding and hardening in turn is circumstantial evidence of ill-intent, which increases the chance of facilities being attacked; and so the cycle continues.

  8. bts

    okay Josh. I had misread the dates in your comments (it’s my dyslexia). My apologies for challenging your knowledge of IAEA reports 🙂

  9. Josh (History)


    That’s a good observation, except that the facilities would have to be declared to the IAEA before going operational, so they couldn’t be kept hidden… unless the point was to keep them hidden.

    When you reflect on it, it’s really a fascinating concept: an entire commercial-scale enrichment plant contained inside hidden underground bunkers.

    Well, not hidden anymore, of course. Jeff once wrote up a nutshell account of how that came to pass.

    I fear, though, that we’re getting off point. The Iranians say it’s all for civilian use, and we should welcome that claim, and encourage them to act in a manner consistent with it — by taking the LEU they’ve made there and turning it into fuel rods.

  10. kme

    Sure, I guess it applies more to the hardening than the hiding (although the act of hardening certainly implies that they didn’t think it would/could stay hidden forever).

    Certainly, on the substantive point. Even just turning the enriched hex into oxide would be a good start.

    Josh replies: We probably shouldn’t make too much of the hardening, which does not appear adequate to stop modern earth-penetrating munitions, although it probably offers a some margin of safety against more traditional weapons.

  11. Nick (History)

    The program was pursued in secrecy because our government threatened others (China and Russia) not to follow through with their NPT obligations and build fuel cycle facilities in Iran.

    After all those bombing threats by us and Israel, in violation of UN Charter and NPT, what should they do, put a big arrow on the ground and turn on the landing lights?

    In 2003 Natanz was revealed far in advance of the Subsidiary Arrangement code 3.1 that requires 6 months in advance of introducing fuel; no violation there at all.

    Brazil centrifuges for Resende are made by their Navy, Iran’s military involvement is another double standard that goes without any discussions.

    After all these years Japan is producing fuel 2 or 3 times more costly than what Urenco charges its customers, and as for Brazil the multiplier is even larger. They do it because they don’t trust the supply source and is part of their national pride.

    Josh replies: There is no obligation undertaken by Russia or China to build fuel-cycle facilities in Iran or anywhere else, for that matter. As for Brazil’s Navy, yeah, nobody outside Brazil is really thrilled about that, but they can point to their naval reactor program as a justification. Iran can’t.

  12. Ataune (History)

    Ahhh Josh,

    If everyone involved in this highly political drama was consistent with the spirit of the international law and not pre-occupied by alternating threats and cuddlings. We wouldn’t have been there raising the whole thing as a “crisis” at all !!

    But the world being what it is, it should come with no surprise that Iran, and as a matter of fact any other country in the Middle-East, hide, in complete compliance with the international law should be noticed (and although I am not even sure that IAEA was not aware of the complex being built), from the eyes and ears of the US and Israeli. Particularly when any observer of the region knew that when the US was cajoling the Iraqi dictator in 1984 through a famous secdef, well aware of the iraqi use of the CW in Iranian battlefields, she had also incited a protected ally to bomb the Iraki civilian nuclear facility which was under IAEA safeguard.

    Josh replies: Actually, hiding an enrichment plant from the IAEA is a gross violation of Iran’s NPT obligations. And it might interest you to know that the first country to try to bomb the Osirak reactor was Iran.

    I can do this all day, folks.

  13. ataune (History)

    I just wanted to correct one mis-interpretation. My sentence should be understood as saying : Iran is entirely under its international obligations if she hides from the ears and eyes of Israel and the US the building plans of its nuclear related facilities. I believe, but I have to check that to be 100% sure, that Iran safeguard agreement stipulate that any nuclear facility should be “declared” at the maximum 180 days before intorducing fuel to the facility. I am also quite confident that by digging into my own files before 2003 regarding this subject I will find an official IAEA document stating the knowledge of the existence of Natnz as a uranium enrichment plant being built.

  14. Josh (History)

    Well, here’s the relevant paragraph from GOV/2003/40:

    3. During the General Conference, the Director General [ElBaradei] met with the Vice President [Agazadeh], and asked that Iran confirm whether it was building a large underground nuclear related facility at Natanz and a heavy water production plant at Arak, as reported in the media in August 2002. The Vice President provided some information on Iran’s intentions to develop further its nuclear fuel cycle, and agreed on a visit to the two sites later in 2002 by the Director General, accompanied by safeguards experts, and to a discussion with Iranian authorities during that meeting on Iran’s nuclear development plans.

    Not having better information than that, that’s what I go by.

    Look, everybody, it was never my intention here to try to persuade anyone of something they’re simply not prepared to accept. There’s no use in butting heads over some things. So let’s agree to disagree.

    Here’s the real point: the AEOI says they are using Natanz to make LEU fuel, and that’s great. They should carry on and make LEU fuel as soon as they can! As my grandmother might say, make fuel in good health!

    I trust no one will differ me with on this score…

  15. Miles Pomper (History)

    I’m not an expert on fuel fabrication facilities but are you sure that the plant to produce the natural uranium fuel rods for the Arak reactor could also provide fuel rods based on the enriched uranium coming out of Natanz? My impression was that either because of the nature of the facilities or their potential output Iran would need another fuel fabrication facility.

    Josh replies: Miles, that’s a great question. I honestly have no idea how big the plant is, or how big it would have to be to accommodate the multiple process lines. The IAEA provides very little detail, although it’s possible that there may be overlooked hints in some of the earlier reports. It can at least be said that ISNA has quoted Abdullah Solatasana as saying that they plan to make LWR fuel there as well as HWR fuel.

  16. kme

    Miles: They could at least use the conversion facility to turn it into uranium dioxide pellets, which are the form used in the fuel rods for Bushehr.

  17. Mac (History)

    On your 5th point: There are few industrial complexes in Iran which can build high tech with considerable numbers and military industry (which receives hundreds million dollars a year) is one of them. In addition secret programs cannot be maintained in non-military industries (in Iran). Someone above mentioned the reasons why they would want to keep the program secret.

    On your 6th point: Iran was a stockholder in Framatom (french company in Shah’s era, later sold and changed the name I guess) and was planned to provide a considerable percentage of its products to Iran. However after revolution they did not even let Iran to maintain its rights to the company. They would never give LEU or even crude Uraniam to Iran, Cheap or expensive. Iran is a country with 70 million inhabitants and 17th economy in the world. It is natural that they want to secure their resources of energy. You might be aware of the plans to cut selling Gas to Iran (because their refineries do not have enough output). When there are plans to cut gas, for sure there will be plans to cut LEU. IRI have three slogans: independence, freedom, Islamic Republic.

    BTW I am Iranian residing in a foreign country and I have serious problem with Iranian government, however I defend the rights of my people to benefit from their knowledge and achievements.

    Other points were discussed by others.

  18. Matthew Bunn

    It’s highly unlikely that the Iranian statement that the plant can make fuel for Bushehr is correct. Making fuel for any particular reactor design requires knowledge of a bunch of fuel design details specific to that reactor design, which is typically proprietary. Iranian experts have told me that they originally expected Russia to license the fuel manufacturing technology to them for the VVER-1000 design at Bushehr, but Russia has refused to do so (preferring to keep the leash on Iran’s fuel supply in its own hands). Iran could potentially design and make unlicensed fuel for the reactor, but this could raise serious safety issues, and would certainly void any guarantees from Russia that Iran may have received regarding the safety and performance of the reactor. My guess is that they will be stuck relying on Russian fuel for years to come — which, of course, makes the argument that they need Natanz to ensure reliability of fuel supply very weak.

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