Michael Spies

The US and the EU3 have said that Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment activities amounted to crossing a “red line“. But a story run by Reuters on Sunday indicates that IAEA Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei may also be stepping over that line. Reuters quotes a diplomat close to the IAEA who said ElBaradei “told diplomats that Natanz (pilot enrichment plant) is Iran’s bottom line, a sovereignty issue, a reality we may have to deal with.” In any deal involving the pilot plant, Iran would be expected to foreswear proceeding with plans to establish a commercial scale enrichment facility.

The compromise proposal would allow for Iran to conduct low scale enrichment within its territory, under the close supervision of the IAEA. The enrichment would be conducted at Iran’s pilot fuel enrichment plant (PFEP) in Natanz, where Iran recently resumed activities. The 164 centrifuge cascade installed there is believed to have suffered extensive corrosive damage from disuse during Iran’s suspension of fuel cycle activities under the negotiations with the EU.

The PFEP has floor space for about 1,000 centrifuges. At full capacity, not likely to be attained for several years, this plant would be capable of churning out enough highly enriched uranium for no more than two bombs per year. David Albright, demystifying the myth of an imminent Iranian nuclear threat in technical detail, describes “Iran’s last technical hurdle to building a centrifuge plant“:

A key part of the development of Iran’s gas centrifuge program is the operation of a 164-machine cascade at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Facility (PFEP) at Natanz. The installation of the first such test cascade was finished in the fall of 2003 but it never operated with uranium hexafluoride prior to the start of the suspension in November of 2003. It was not operated during the suspension. Until the start of the suspension, Iran had used uranium hexafluoride in single machine tests and a small cascade of 19 machines. Several of these tests encountered problems.

To operate this cascade at the pilot facility, Iran needs to take several steps before it can introduce uranium hexafluoride into the system. It first has to repair or replace any damaged centrifuges. According to IAEA reports, about 30% of the centrifuges crashed or broke when the cascade was shut down at the start of the suspension. In addition, Iran disconnected some of the pipes and exposed the pipes to humidity which could have caused corrosion. After making necessary repairs, Iran then has to finish connecting all the pipes, establish a vacuum inside the cascade, start the process of turning on the centrifuges and then running them under vacuum for several weeks, and prepare the cascade for operation with uranium hexafluoride. Iran may start enriching uranium in a subset of this cascade sooner, but it could take two or more months to ready the whole cascade for the use of uranium hexafluoride. If Iran does not encounter any significant problems, such as excessive vibration of the centrifuges or leakage of the vacuum, Iran could then introduce uranium hexafluoride into the entire cascade and start enriching uranium. Iran would want to operate the cascade for several more months to ensure that no significant problems develop and gain confidence that it can operate the cascade with uranium hexafluoride. Absent major problems, Iran will need roughly six months to one year to demonstrate successful operation of this cascade.

According to Albright,

Once Iran overcomes the last technical hurdle of operating its test cascade, it can duplicate it and create larger cascades. Iran would then be ready to build a centrifuge plant able to produce significant amounts of enriched uranium either for peaceful purposes or for nuclear weapons.

The PFEP can hold a total of six, 164-machine cascades for a total of about 1000 machines, although Iran may build fewer cascades or change the number of centrifuges per cascade. Without major modifications, this facility is unlikely to be used to make significant amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons.

Despite the final conclusion that the PFEP is unlikely to produce much HEU, Albright was quoted in the Reuter’s story as suggesting ElBaradei’s idea is “na´ve” because it could lead to further concessions to Iran. But from the perspective of Iran’s implacable defense of its “rights” recognized under Article IV of the NPT, it’s unclear who would be conceding what to whom.