Andreas PersboBypassing safeguards

Cross-posted from Verification, Implementation and Compliance

At the present, I believe that the likelihood of an Iranian break-out is slim. The principal reason for this argument is that Iran’s installed capacity at the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz is still low, and that a break-out would entail significant political and security risks for the country. As long as Agency safeguards are in place at the Iranian sites, the international community is likely to get advance warning of any attempt to divert material or to use the existing facilities for nefarious purposes.

The problem is that not all of the nuclear fuel cycle is under safeguards. Processes downstream from the uranium conversion facility are generally covered. But uranium mining and milling as well as certain nuclear related activities (such as research centres or centrifuge assembly sites) are not monitored. Since this is the case, it is easy for a fairly technologically advanced state to construct a parallel nuclear fuel cycle, using indigenous uranium resources to fuel a clandestine weapons programme.

Figure 1: Safeguards under INFCIRC/153

The most appealing option for the cheater is to divert material where safeguards are not applied, in this case the nuclear ore. Let’s take Iran as an example. At present, Iran’s stockpile of uranium yellowcake is unknown. The only thing that is known, really, is that the country imported 600 metric tonnes from South Africa in the 1970s. If the Iranians have used that material up until January 2009, it would have about 188 tonnes of yellowcake left by now. But again, material accountancy is not carried out, and Iran is under no obligation to give answers if asked.

Status of Iran’s mines
The status of Iran’s two known mines is largely unknown, but the OECD publication Uranium 2007 at least sheds some light on the status of activities. In Saghand, the AEOI is presently engaged in sinking two cylindrical shafts, each having 4 meters in diameter and extending 350 meters in depth, as well as tunnelling (about 620 meters in total). All projects are scheduled to be implemented by the end of 2009. Ore will be excavated using the “room and pillar”, “cut and fill” and “sub-level stoping” methods.

Mining activities are on-going in the Gchine salt plug near Bandar-Abbas. This is an open-pit mine, and mining operations have been on-going since 2006. Its ore is being transported to Iran’s only operating uranium production centre (the BUP), which is capable of treating 48 tonnes of uranium ore per day. It has a production capacity of 21 tonnes of uranium per year. Iran’s second production facility lies near Ardakan, has a production capacity of 50 tonnes of uranium per year, and is scheduled to go on-stream later in 2009. Iran’s reasonably assured resources of uranium is very low, some 591 tonnes of uranium, and its inferred resources are not much higher, about 1,356 tonnes, most of it in metasomatite rock.

If the OECD’s figures are correct, it is possible to calculate how much ore would be left in the Gchine salt mine by the end of 2010 if the BUP operates as declared. This calculation is visualized in figure 2.

Figure 2: Mining

Consequently, by the end of 2010, about 60 per cent of the deposits at Gchine would be exploited. The mine would be more or less drained by 2014.

It is also possible to estimate the stockpile of domestically produced yellowcake, again if the BUP operates as declared and if it uses the acid leach solvent extraction process.

Figure 3: Milling

By the beginning of 2009, the stockpile would be some 42 metric tonnes of yellowcake. Probability statistics show that the actual stockpile in 2009 is somewhere between 9.2 and 33.8 metric tonnes (obviously the absence of data leads to an enormous uncertainty – and this is again assuming that the OECD has provided accurate information).

As indicated above, with only the comprehensive safeguards agreement in place, it is virtually impossible to keep track of this stockpile.

In order to be enriched, the yellowcake would obviously need to be processed further. And here is the catch if Iran would want to cheat. Safeguards at uranium conversion facilities are generally quite effective, especially if the throughput is low, and this more or less excludes using the uranium conversion facility at Esfahan for processing the yellowcake. Once it gets on the Agency’s books, the material is tracked downstream, and diversion becomes risky business.

Therefore, a state determined to cheat on its non-proliferation obligations would need not only to construct a clandestine uranium enrichment plant, but also a clandestine conversion facility. This facility would not need to be large; a capacity of 10 metric tonnes of uranium per year would be more than sufficient. However, it is an additional investment and it carries with it a risk of overhead or ground detection. The centrifuge facility could be minimal.

About 1,300 IR-1 centrifuges would be able to produce enough highly enriched material for one weapon per year. The cascade hall would require about 520 square meters of space (that’s 23 by 23 meters) so the entire operation could be comfortably hidden in a factory building somewhere (amusingly, old clock factories seem to be the preferred choice). It would not require more electricity than an average workshop, so it cannot be detected by a passive infrared survey.

If Gchine is operational, there is enough unsafeguarded yellowcake for 1-5 weapons stored somewhere in Iran. The potential of this material being used in a parallel fuel cycle is the real cause for concern and not a diversion or break-out scenario using declared and safeguarded facilities.

The importance of the additional protocol
This is why it is critically important that Iran reapplies the additional protocol. This instrument allows the Agency to ask for and receive information on Iran’s mines (as well as several other activities – such as the assembly of centrifuge rotors). This information can be followed up upon by means of complementary access. The scope of the Additional Protocol is best illustrated by figure 4, which I again have borrowed from a friend’s presentation.

Figure 4: Safeguards under INFCIRC/540

It is only through the additional protocol that the Agency can provide some assurance of the absence of undeclared nuclear activities on Iran’s territory. It can do so since it will be able to analyze a much broader array of information. Using this information, they can see whether the flows match up, if only approximately.

The application of the additional protocol will not by itself be able to answer many of the question-marks currently plaguing the Iranian file. For this, transparency measures going beyond the requirement of the additional protocol will be necessary. This is not something the Iranian government seems willing to implement at the moment.

This is unfortunate since for as long as this kind of transparency is not given, the file will never close.


  1. Dave Schuler (History)

    amusingly, old clock factories seem to be the preferred choice

    The old use of radium for illuminating dials renders them proof to radiological detection. They already show high levels of background radiation.

  2. Ataune (History)

    I am curious to know what exactly those “transparency measures” can be. And by those I don’t mean the accusations put forward mainly by the US in the “alleged studies” after Iran answered all the IAEA remaining questions to the satisfaction of the latter. Keep in mind that it is easy for some powers to “fabricate” evidence, as they shamelessly did during a particularly tragic war in the same region.

    Beyond that, I find your recommendation of Iran applying or ratifying the AP quite helpful for the cause of non-proliferation. Keep in mind though that this is a political process and has give and take.

  3. thermopile

    Back in 2005, there was an extensive article in Platts Nuclear Fuel about Iran’s difficulty in getting the molybdenum out of their yellowcake. Does anyone know if Iran has solved this problem yet? If they haven’t, it would be another hurdle to jump before they can start feeding indigenous U3O8 into the stream.

    Color me surprised at how low Iran’s uranium resources are … very informative. It does raise the question, “Why are they pursuing an in-country enrichment program?”

  4. Andreas Persbo

    A couple of years ago, James Acton and I tried to look into this matter through informal cooperation with a number of Iranian and UK officials. The reports are still on the VERTIC webpage. We did not get far, since the Iranian election effectively applied brakes on everything. And a serving Iranian diplomat have told be repeatedly over the years how wrong our reports are – about everything. It’s okay – we’re still talking. But if you’re interested in a ‘menu’ of options, have a look at

    Some here in the UK say that the molybdenum issue was resolved a number of years ago (around 2007). I’ve also heard similar things in Vienna. But there is little information on ground truth. Given the competency and level of the officials I’ve talked to, I’m inclined to think that the contamination issue is resolved.

    And yes, Iran’s reserves are minimal. But not all surveying has been done yet. So their RAR and IR could be larger. I would be surprised, however, if they find huge amounts of uranium in the Iranian soil. So, if they want civilian power, they’re going to be very dependent on imported yellowcake.

  5. Tom (History)

    One quick question with regards to the focus on Iranain centrifuges when it comes to enrichment.

    I was just reading through the Iranian Nuclear Science Bibliography – Open Source Literature that the FAS Secrecy blog published and there seems to be a fairly substantial Iranian focus on laser isotope separation in it in terms of published research.

    Is there any clear idea of where Iranian research stands in that field?

  6. Andreas Persbo

    As you know, the Iranians admitted to doing research and development on both AVLIS and MLIS. The Agency reported quite a bit on this during the time when the additional protocol was provisionally applied.

    However, after the collapse of the Paris Agreement and the ceased application of the additional protocol, the Agency found itself barred from looking at all enrichment R&D. So there has been no reporting on this since 2005. All we know, really, is that the Iranians are very interested in the technique. While it is possible that they’ve had some breakthroughs in the last four years, I would be surprised if they had a pilot scale facility in place. But that’s just my quasi-educated guess.

  7. mark hibbs (History)

    Thermopile, Andreas:

    We ran an article in Nuclear Fuel late last year which briefly updated our earlier articles from 2005 and 2006 you mentioned on moly and Iran’s uranium conversion plant. This article was also referenced by ISIS in a recent item it posted on the issue of Iran’s uranium inventory. I asked someone (I think I agreed to call him a “UN safeguards official”) if Iran had solved the issue of the metallic impurities in its domestically-processed U3O8 feedstock. The answer was, basically, yes. This tracks with Andreas’ information in his posting that he was hearing in 2007 that Iran solved the problem. Our original information back in 2005 was that it would take Iran anywhere from several months to maybe 1 or 2 years to solve it, depending on certain assumptions about their learning curve and Iran’s access to know-how and processing experience documented in the open literature by the world’s uranium processing industry.

  8. Andreas Persbo

    Thanks Mark. I remember that a conversion specialist said in a meeting with VERTIC sometime in 2006 that the contamination issue was a “minor thing” that would be relatively easy to solve.

    So, we have it from multiple sources now that it’s very safe to assume that Iran can use domestic U3O8 feedstock.

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