Joshua PollackReading Mark Hibbs in Washington

It’s a red-letter day: David Ignatius of the Washington Post has been reading Mark Hibbs in Nucleonics Week. He [i.e., Ignatius] concludes that molybdenum impurities could prevent Iran from enriching its LEU far beyond present levels.

No further enrichment, no breakout scenario, right? Well, yes and no.

(The Mo question has been discussed at some length here, starting with a post by James Acton — see Geneva: The TRR and Enrichment Abroad, October 1, 2009.)

The problems at Iran’s Uranium Conversion Facility have been known for quite some time. Paul Kerr in Arms Control Today got a source to hint at this all the way back in 2004, as Jeff pointed out awhile ago (Got Gas? Iran Stinks at Making UF6, August 13, 2005; Iran’s UF6 Is ‘Crap’, September 28, 2005).

These problems probably have nothing to do with sabotage of equipment, as Ignatius seems to have concluded. Instead, it has to do with the withdrawal of the Chinese from the project (under U.S. pressure) ca. 1996. The Iranians had to figure out how to complete the facility themselves, and wound up substituting a key technology (see: Chinese Mixer-Settlers at UCF, October 20, 2005).

For a long time, the Iranians did not introduce their own UF6 into their centrifuges, and relied on a supply from China to test their machines. But as of early 2007, it appeared that the Iranians had resolved these problems, because they started carting UF6 from the UCF to the enrichment facility at Natanz.

The IAEA presumably knows how much molybdenum is in Iran’s UF6, but hasn’t addressed this in the Director-General’s reports; it isn’t germane. But if the Iranians can’t get the stuff as clean as they might like, the issue might have come up in the talks that have unfolded over the last few months in Vienna.

As discussed previously, the Iranians can still enrich to any level they want, but if a certain level of impurities remains in the product, that makes the process more laborious. The product would have to be hauled back to the UCF for further purification after partial enrichment, then returned for further enrichment, and so on. That really does put a kink in rapid breakout scenarios.

On the other hand, compared to the technical hurdles that the Iranians have already overcome, perfecting purification at the UCF doesn’t seem like a great challenge, and we should expect the AEOI to solve that one sooner or later, if they haven’t already.

One other point is worth considering, too. If the Iranians were to build a parallel fuel cycle, they’d probably be smart enough to collocate the parallel UCF with the parallel enrichment facility, which would make it a lot easier to do backing-and-forthing if necessary. Certainly, it will be interesting to learn what turns up at Qom during the inspections later this month, although we’re unlikely to learn before the next Board of Governors meeting, scheduled for late November.

Update: Mark Hibbs comments:

For the record—lest your readers get the false impression of my role in this debate—it should be underscored that I DID NOT conclude in my Oct. 8 article (now I’m quoting your paraphrase of David Ignatius’ piece): “moly impurities could prevent Iran from enriching LEU far beyond present levels.”

1.) We were told by a senior safeguards official in 2008 (a point which I referenced in the Oct. 8 article) that Iran had apparently solved its basic problem at UCF in removing impurities.

2.) We were also told (not only us but Paul-Anton Krueger at the Sueddeutsche Zeitung) that the arrangement which Lavrov had described as a “formula” for the P-5+1 supplying TRR fuel to Iran called on France and Areva removing impurities from Iran’s EUP. I asked Areva over a week ago to confirm or deny that and they haven’t seen fit to respond.

I think it would be fair to say that most of us following this were a little surprised to hear that the impurities issue had figured in deliberations between P-5+1 and Iran on how to handle Iran’s Natanz-enriched uranium to end up with TRR fuel.

I’ll see what I can do on Monday morning to get my Oct. 8 article posted in its entirety and let ACW readers judge for themselves what the situation is. Right now, we don’t have any official explanation for the interest of P-5+1 and/or Iran in having the French purify Iran’s EUP, for the reasons you, I, Paul, Jeffrey, James and others have gone into since 2005.

— mark hibbs · Oct 17, 10:35 AM ·

Comments

  1. mark hibbs

    Josh:

    For the record—lest your readers get the false impression of my role in this debate—it should be underscored that I DID NOT conclude in my Oct. 8 article (now I’m quoting your paraphrase of David Ignatius’ piece): “moly impurities could prevent Iran from enriching LEU far beyond present levels.”

    1.) We were told by a senior safeguards official in 2008 (a point which I referenced in the Oct. 8 article) that Iran had apparently solved its basic problem at UCF in removing impurities.

    2.) We were also told (not only us but Paul-Anton Krueger at the Sueddeutsche Zeitung) that the arrangement which Lavrov had described as a “formula” for the P-5+1 supplying TRR fuel to Iran called on France and Areva removing impurities from Iran’s EUP. I asked Areva over a week ago to confirm or deny that and they haven’t seen fit to respond.

    I think it would be fair to say that most of us following this were a little surprised to hear that the impurities issue had figured in deliberations between P-5+1 and Iran on how to handle Iran’s Natanz-enriched uranium to end up with TRR fuel.

    I’ll see what I can do on Monday morning to get my Oct. 8 article posted in its entirety and let ACW readers judge for themselves what the situation is. Right now, we don’t have any official explanation for the interest of P-5+1 and/or Iran in having the French purify Iran’s EUP, for the reasons you, I, Paul, Jeffrey, James and others have gone into since 2005.

  2. Josh (History)

    Mark:

    Thanks for this helpful clarification. Being able to have an open dialogue here is probably as close as any of us will ever get to the Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall.

    I, for one, was somewhat surprised by the re-emergence of Mo. It hasn’t come out of nowhere, but had seemed like an issue of the past. Kudos — again — to James for anticipating that it might come up.

    A cautionary note. One of the more technically sophisticated people following these issues warns against placing too much emphasis on fine-grained technical assessments of national nuclear fuel cycles, or other similarly demanding technological systems. Where a certain level of resources and competencies exists, the problems of today — which may seem like insuperable obstacles for nuclear newcomers — tend to be resolved in time.

    Like the other participants in this blog who have written on the subject, I’m disinclined to alarmist takes on the LEU breakout scenario. But that’s not fundamentally for reasons of inadequate capabilities.

  3. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    My thoughts on Ignatius’s article:

    Part the first

    Part the second

    Part the third

    I’m looking forward to being able to read your article, Mark. Hope you can get it out to us.

    And I sent an e-mail to David Ignatius with links to my posts and this one. Anyone want to bet on what (or if) his response will be?

  4. nick (History)

    The question that I have is that, none of the IAEA reports have suggested any mechanical failure of IR1’s spinning domestically converted hex to the current <5% level. Thus, if there were impurities, it would have been observed by now. By using transitive closure type argument, if it didn’t cause any problems to this level, then it must not be of any concerns for the next level of enrichment.

  5. Josh (History)

    Nick,

    If I understand your question correctly, then the best answer is probably to be found in Geoff’s earlier discussion of allowable Mo levels.

    The short version is, the MoF6 gets further concentrated as the UF6 is further enriched, eventually reaching levels that would unbalance centrifuges.

  6. Anon

    “If I understand your question correctly, then the best answer is probably to be found in Geoff’s earlier discussion of allowable Mo levels.”

    It’s a non-issue.

    Please stay tuned for further updates.

  7. pkr (History)

    There are a whole range of scenarios why one or several parties involved in the supposed deal would want to have the impurities removed. It could simply be necessary to fulfill the international standards for reactor fuel. Or because the Russians would want to make sure that their UF6 stockpile or enrichment related facilities are not contaminated by Iranian UF6 that does not meet their standards (depends on the question if they would return the same material to Iran that they receive or if they’d rather swap it with uranium from their own feedstock).

    One other and certainly the most significant scenario would be that the Iranian UF6 is pure enough to be enriched to 5 percent, but not to 19.75 percent. In this case, a quick breakout scenario becomes at least questionable.

    Some seem to believe that Irans technological competence and experience with their UCF would allow them to further purify the UF6 and go ahead with enrichment to any level they desire. Maybe. But I’m not yet convinced that this is the case. Have they mastered the reconversion process at the UCF? Have they ever tried it? The enriched uranium from Natans is stored in the form of UF6 and not reconverted yet. And are they able to convert and store enriched UF6 as opposed to natural grade uranium in the UCF, especially when it comes to weapons grade? Are they able to install special withdrawal stations on their centrifuges to remove the moly from the product stream? I haven’t seen any information that confirms that the Iranians are in fact able to remove the impurities. Has anybody else?

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