Iran runs and runs

13 July 2004

On 21 May, Iran delivered to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) its initial declaration under the Additional Protocol to its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement, providing broader information about its nuclear-related activities. In mid-June, IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei will submit his next report to the board of governors on the progress of the IAEA’s verification of the information provided by Iran on its past and present nuclear activities. Following a visit to Tehran on 6 April, he said he was satisfied with the results of his meetings which included agreement on a timetable to deal with outstanding issues. Subsequently, a team of five IAEA inspectors visited Iran to verify compliance with its commitment to suspend uranium enrichment activities.

ElBaradei’s last report to the board in February 2004 dealt with developments since the previous report in November 2003, and covered verification activities with respect to uranium conversion, irradiation and reprocessing experiments as well as gas centrifuge enrichment, laser enrichment, and the heavy water programme.

The report noted that Iran had presented all declared nuclear material to the IAEA for verification, as well as providing the inventory change reports, material balance reports and physical inventory listings previously requested. In addition, Iran had submitted design information for facilities required by the agency and had agreed to provide supplementary information. The IAEA welcomed the extent to which Iran had actively cooperated with the agency in allowing access to specific locations including workshops situated at military sites. Although investigations were continuing, the agency said good progress had been made in verifying Iran’s statements about its uranium conversion project and associated experiments and testing activities. The agency has also been verifying the suspension of enrichment and reprocessing activities.

However, there are a number of outstanding issues needing further clarification before the June meeting. A major one concerns the low enriched uranium (LEU) and high enriched uranium (HEU) contamination associated with centrifuge enrichment equipment at the Kalaye Electric Company workshop and Natanz.

More information is needed on the origin of the centrifuge equipment and components, the locations in Iran to which such equipment and components were moved, the associated details of timescales and the names of individuals involved. The report said this would depend to a great extent on the cooperation of the country from which the imported items are believed to have originated. Other sources have identified this country as Pakistan.

The agency is also seeking further clarification on the nature and scope of Iran’s laser isotope enrichment research and details of associated equipment. The report said that further assessment is pending the evaluation of new information and the verification of results from inspections, including the results of environmental and other samples, and continuing detailed study of information related to Atomic Vapour Laser Isotope Separation (AVLIS) equipment design.

The two issues which are likely to be the focus of debate in June, however, are Iran’s possession of advanced P-2 centrifuge design drawings and activities related to the production and intended use of polonium-210 (Po-210).

Iran’s failure to notify possession of advanced P-2 centrifuge design drawings and associated research, manufacturing and mechanical testing activities was described by the agency as a matter of serious concern. Iran said the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), in 1999 or 2000, concluded a contract with a private company located in Tehran to develop a P-2 centrifuge. The agency interviewed the owner of that company who explained that, in his view, Iran was not capable of manufacturing the appropriate maraging steel cylinders with bellows called for in the P-2 design. As a result, Iran decided to work on a shorter, sub-critical carbon composite rotor, and the company had manufactured seven rotors with various dimensions. These had been tested without using nuclear material. All work had been stopped after June 2003 and the equipment was moved to the Pars Trash Company in Tehran. Iran said its October 2003 declaration had omitted information on both the P-1 and the P-2 centrifuges since the declaration only included information intended to correct the failures of reporting under its original Safeguards Agreement, which did not require such information. However, it is now required under the newly signed Additional Protocol.

On 30 March, Iran submitted a rejoinder to the February report, responding to some of the points raised, including the P-2 centrifuge issue. While acknowledging the “professionalism and hard work of the IAEA Secretariat”, Iran sought “to clarify a number of inadvertent omissions in the report and augment the information in other parts.”

Iran stressed that its national programme on centrifuge enrichment was based on the P-1 design used at the Natanz pilot plant. During discussions in mid-2003 with the IAEA, Iranian centrifuge experts had discussed different models and dimensions of centrifuge components, particularly rotors. Iran said the agency was informed of the R&D project well in advance. Iran insists there was no intention to conceal this information, noting that a small rotor, not a

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Among the issues discussed was the possibility of setting up a consortium with European countries and Russia to produce enriched uranium

P-1 design, was on display in the exhibition hall in Natanz during the visit of the director general and his delegation in February 2003. Only general engineering drawings for the P-2 had been received and no detail or manufacturing design. Moreover, no P-2 components were obtained from an intermediary. Only a handful of components, rotor tubes with different dimensions, were locally manufactured by a private company and these had been voluntarily presented to agency inspectors in January 2004. This project was terminated due to contractual problems.

The other concern raised in the report, which may prove to be a focus of attention at the June meeting, was Iran’s production of Po-210. In September 2003, agency inspectors, aware by then that undeclared uranium irradiation had taken place in the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), noticed from available records that bismuth metal samples had also been irradiated in the same general period (1989–1993). Although bismuth is not nuclear material requiring declaration under the Safeguards Agreement, it produces Po-210, which can have military as well as civilian applications when used with beryllium. Iran informed the agency that the bismuth irradiation had been part of a feasibility study for the production and use of Po-210 in radioisotope thermoelectric generators. In January 2004, the agency interviewed two scientists involved in the project who confirmed that this was the purpose of the research. During follow-up discussions, Iranian officials said that the experiments were also part of a study on neutron sources for industrial applications, noting Iran could not obtain commercially available neutron sources because of import restrictions.

In its March response, Iran noted that the irradiation of bismuth metal to produce Po-210 had been thoroughly discussed with inspectors in Iran and a 41-page document presented to the IAEA. The issue was also explained during the briefing in February 2004. Iran stressed that declaration of bismuth irradiation was not required under its Safeguards Agreement and the project had been aborted more than 13 years ago. In addition, complete information about irradiation of two bismuth samples in the TRR were recorded in the reactor logbook which has been under agency safeguards for almost 30 years. The intention was not to make a neutron source for any military purpose and so no beryllium had been ordered when the required items were procured from abroad. The supporting procurement documents have been submitted to the agency.

In the run-up to the June meeting, diplomatic activity has intensified. Over the past few months the USA had maintained pressure for sanctions on Iran’s nuclear programme, having failed to win support for referring Iran to the UN Security Council at the February IAEA board meeting.

In early May, the House of Representatives of the US Congress adopted a motion calling on the world community including Russia and the European Union “to end cooperation with Tehran”. In response, Nikolai Shingarev, the official spokesman of Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency said Russia had no reason to halt nuclear cooperation with Iran and would continue to construct the nuclear power plant in Bushehr. “In doing so Russia is honouring international obligations assumed in an intergovernmental treaty between Moscow and Tehran, and it will honour those obligations in full,” Shingarev said. He pointed out that since it began, “the construction work has been under the constant supervision of the IAEA.” He also said Russia might take part in building a second power unit in Iran.

Nevertheless, Washington continued to urge Moscow to end its nuclear cooperation with Iran and, following talks in Moscow on 20 May, US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, implied that Russia had agreed that Iran’s nuclear programme should be referred by the IAEA’s board of directors to the UN Security Council. This prompted an immediate denial from Moscow in a Foreign Ministry statement which expressed ‘incredulity’ at Bolton’s remarks. While Iran had been discussed, the statement said, “there was no understanding reached between us and the US delegation regarding IAEA’s reporting to the Security Council, since this question was not discussed at the consultations at all.” The ministry added that “all remaining questions regarding the transparency of the Iranian programme can and must be lifted through the closest cooperation possible between Iran and the IAEA”. The statement said Russia expected the forthcoming progress report by the IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei “to give an objective analysis of the way cooperation between Iran and the IAEA is developing.”

Iran has also been active on the diplomatic front since February with high-level delegations visiting Russia and touring Europe in both April and May. These included extensive talks with European Commission president Romano Prodi. Discussions with various European leaders covered political issues but also stressed the mutual benefits of increased trade. Among the issues discussed was Iran’s nuclear power programme and the potential for sales of western technology as well as its uranium enrichment programme and the possibility of setting up a consortium with European countries and Russia to produce enriched uranium.

Like previous IAEA board of governors’ meetings on Iran, the debate in June is certain to be essentially political in nature to the point where the underlying key issues are likely to be totally obscured. However, IAEA officials said the Iran situation epitomises the current difficulties involved in reconciling the need to strengthen non-proliferation with the right of developing countries and the rest of the world to have access to civil nuclear technology, which is likely to be of vital importance in any long-term energy strategy.

Non-proliferation is facing two main problems: enrichment at the front end of the fuel cycle leading to the production of HEU, and reprocessing at the back end which, using current technology, produces plutonium. Current reprocessing technologies were designed to extract plutonium for weapons use but new innovative systems do not need pure plutonium and it is possible to establish additional technical barriers to proliferation based on this fact, agency experts told NEI. Enrichment remains a problematic technology as centrifuges can be produced without export control and are available on the black market. But IAEA officials believe simply restricting access to technology is not the answer as this does not mean they will not be developed – as both India and Pakistan have shown. It is better to have some involvement and control, but an alternative approach would be to establish additional ways of limiting sensitive technologies to those who already have them, but without depriving others of the products of these technologies.

The imposition of any additional restrictions on technology transfer would need to be compensated by increased international cooperation. An international fuel cycle could help to resolve these problems, and ElBaradei supports this concept. Officials say the role of the IAEA extends beyond safeguards and their administration: while it is one of the agency’s duties, it is also important to consider different ways to promote safeguards, and the inclusion of safeguards experts in the development of innovative technologies is seen as very important.




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