Can Iran Expand its Nuclear Program Rapidly?

Iran’s announcement that it is going to produce enriched uranium at 19.75 percent, using its current stockpile of 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium (LEU), which it needs as fuel for the Tehran research reactor (TRR) that produces medical isotopes, has stirred unwarranted war hysteria in the West. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that Iran will begin the enrichment at a level “less than 20 percent.”  

Note that the language of the IAEA statement and the 19.75 percent that Iran has set as the level of enrichment are both important, because any uranium enriched above 20 percent is considered to be high-enriched, normally associated with a nuclear bomb or device, even though in reality 90 percent enrichment is necessary for a nuclear weapon. So, just try to imagine if the IAEA discovers traces of uranium in Iran enriched at 20.1 percent. The world would be bombarded with the news that Iran has produced high-enriched uranium suitable for nuclear weapons!

Iran plans to begin testing the enrichment process using the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP), which is a small-scale facility used previously for centrifuge research, development, and testing. The PFEP can hold six centrifuge cascades, each with 164 centrifuges, but only three or four have actually been installed. According to Reuters, Iran has begun introducing its 3.5 percent LEU at the Natanz PFEP under the IAEA supervision, using only a single cascade, but the report has not yet been confirmed by the IAEA. Iran has also stated that it will stop the efforts to produce the 19.75 percent LEU, if the international community is willing to sell it the fuel for the TRR.

Iran has also announced that it will set up 10 more uranium enrichment centers, in addition to its main enrichment facility at Natanz, which currently houses close to 8,000 centrifuges, and a small under-construction facility in Fordow near Qom that is supposed to eventually house 3,000 centrifuges, but will not come online for at least another 18 months.

But, amid the hysteria few people are asking the relevant questions. Can Iran actually do what it has said it wants to do? If it can, at what speed? Does Iran have all the required technology and know-how to expand its nuclear program rapidly? 

Before answering the all important questions, let us briefly review the state of affairs between Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. On February 2, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared on Iranian television that Iran had “no problem” with the third party enrichment deal’s terms, and that the nation was willing to send its uranium abroad for further enrichment. He was talking about a deal whereby Iran is supposed to ship most of its stockpile of LEU abroad, and will receive in return the fuel for the TRR.  

The deal had been agreed on in October in Geneva between Iran’s negotiation team and the P5+1 and the IAEA. But, when the deal was taken to Tehran for final approval, it generated strong backlash across the political spectrum, from the opposition to the conservatives. The opposition leader, Mir Hossein Moussavi, declared that it was a terrible agreement, because if Iran does go along with it, it will lose most of its stockpile of the LEU, and if it does not, it will be punished by new sanctions.

Others thought that Iran’s LEU was its bargaining chip that should not be lost easily. Still others thought that shipping the LEU abroad for further enrichment will become a permanent fixture of any possible future agreement between Iran and the P5+1, which is not acceptable to Iran.

Iran also wanted a simultaneous swap of its LEU with the fuel for the TRR. But the fact is that the TRR is old. The fuel for that type of reactor is not produced on a regular basis, nor is there much of it in any country’s stockpile. In fact, only Argentina (that provided the fuel for the TRR in the past) and France can produce it. The P5+1 has been saying that it would take up to a year to fabricate the fuel, but it wants Iran to immediately ship out most of its LEU, and wait to receive the fuel. Iran seems to believe that it should only take a few months to prepare the fuel. 

Still, Ahmadinejad and at least some of his allies want a deal. First, they are under tremendous pressure, both within Iran — due to the aftermath of the June 12 rigged presidential election – and by the international community over their regime’s gross violations of human rights, imprisonment of thousands of people protesting the fraud in the election, murder of several dozens people, execution of at least 4 people, the assassination of two prominent members of the opposition, etc., not to mention Iran’s nuclear program, even though it is a peaceful program, at least so far. 

Thus, in Ahmadinejad’s view reaching an agreement with the P5+1 will lessen the international pressure on his government, and might improve the relations with the United States. The latter is also his goal, because he sees it as a way of gaining some credibility with the Iranian people living in Iran after losing all his credibility with a very large segment of the population, and at the same time giving them the message that the U.S. is not on their side, even though most Iranians reject any U.S. aid to the Green Movement in the first place. They do not want any intervention by the outside world, and particularly by the U.S., in their internal affairs. 

But, the U.S. and its allies do not seem to be capable of taking yes for an answer. State Department Spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said,

“There is a forum to be able to resolve whether this [Ahmadinejad’s] is a serious offer and that’s through the IAEA. If Iran is serious, they can inform the IAEA that they are ready to accept the deal that’s on the table. We are not prepared to change the deal … We are not interested in renegotiating it. If Iran wants to accept it then they should inform the IAEA.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is so much in love with Israel that her cabinet and that of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, recently held a joint session in Berlin, insisted that the time has come for tough sanctions against Iran. 

Let us now see whether Iran is actually capable of rapidly developing its nuclear program. The first question is whether Iran is technically equipped to produce 19.75 percent LEU. Based on the present knowledge about Iran’s nuclear program, that is not a given. Certainly, Iran has acquired a considerable amount of experience and know-how on uranium enrichment, but it still has difficulty producing the 3.5 percent LEU smoothly. Iran’s centrifuges malfunction on a regular basis. 

In fact, the Washington Post quoted Mohammad Ghannadi, vice president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, as saying that while Iran could try to produce the fuel itself, "There would be technical problems. Also, we’d never make it on time to help our patients."  

Even if Iran could produce the 19.75 percent LEU on time, it would still need to fabricate it into fuel rods. But, Iran has no experience doing so. It may take quite some time to acquire the know-how. If Iran tries to use the knowledge that has been accumulated abroad, the safety of the reactor may be jeopardized.  

Third, although in principle the Natanz facility can enrich the 3.5 percent LEU to 19.75 percent, the yellow cake that is converted to uranium hexafluoride (the main feedstock for enrichment) in the uranium enrichment facility in Esfahan is contaminated with molybdenum and other contaminants. After enrichment to 19.75 percent the same impurities and contaminants remain in the enriched fuel. Hence, not only severely contaminated fuel is produced (even at the 3.5 percent) that may be useless, but the centrifuge cascades are also contaminated.  

This point is never discussed in the mainstream media, even though it is highly important. Moreover, France has the know-how to clean up the contaminated fuel, which means that even though Iran does not trust France, it has to be involved. Of course, with patience, skill, unlimited funds, and knowledge in materials science Iran can eventually produce the fuel, but that is years away. 

Finally, can Iran set up 10 new uranium enrichment facilities? Not in the foreseeable future. The Natanz facility is supposed to house around 50,000 centrifuges, but that is still years away. Even a significant fraction of close to 8000 centrifuges that have been installed at Natanz is not working for various reasons. There is also no evidence that Iran has secretly manufactured a very large number of centrifuges that are not known to the IAEA. 

Thus, what is Iran’s point in declaring that it will set up 10 more enrichment facilities? First and foremost defiance in the face of tremendous pressure, both domestically and internationally. More importantly, as Gareth Porter pointed out, by claiming that it will set up more uranium enrichment centers, Iran may be trying to deter any possible military attacks on Natanz and Fordow. 

Therefore, once again, the cries for military attacks on Iran are becoming loud, without any legitimate reason whatsoever. The reason is clear: The U.S. and its allies do not want Iran to have any uranium enrichment program because the crux of the issue is that, any such facility will enable Iran to make nuclear weapons on short notice, if its national security and territorial integrity are threatened by foreign forces. But, that capability would make Iran unattackable, a prospect that is not acceptable to the U.S. and Israel. They want to have hegemony in the Middle East. 

The net result of the war hysteria is to set back Iran’s democratic movement, by giving Tehran’s hardliners something to rally the nation, silent the opposition, and continue their rule.

Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.