Calls for cooperation continue

2 December 2008

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors’ meeting in November focused on technical cooperation and verification.

Opening the meeting, IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei drew the board’s attention to a report from the Technical Assistance and Cooperation Committee outlining the Technical Cooperation (TC) Programme for 2009-2011. He said it was “demand-driven and responds to the development priorities identified by member states, which have been closely involved in its formulation.” He added that it was a strong programme, and it was the responsibility of member states to see that it was implemented. As well as support for medical and agricultural projects, he noted that “more and more member states are considering launching nuclear power programmes and asking the agency for assistance.”

He added: “Our objective is to assist states which want to make use of nuclear power as part of their energy mix during the entire process, including through expert advice, equipment and training. This is intended to ensure that they have a solid infrastructure and make the best use of available technology, with high levels of safety, security and non-proliferation. We anticipate a four-fold increase in the number of TC projects in 2009-2011 focused on the introduction of nuclear power. Projects on uranium exploration and production are also increasing.”

Agency stands firm on Syria

On Syria, ElBaradei said that the agency had been provided with information alleging that an installation destroyed by Israel in Syria in September 2007 was a nuclear reactor. He noted that Syria had said the Dair Alzour site was military and was not involved in any nuclear activities. However, the USA insisted that intelligence reports indicated a nuclear site. ElBaradei said the IAEA had been severely hampered in its assessment by the unilateral use of force and by the late provision of information about the destroyed building, and that the results were so far inconclusive. The investigation would continue.

Controversy arose, however, when the USA, Canada and the European Union (EU) tried to block aid for a planned Syrian nuclear power plant, while Syria is under IAEA investigation. China, Russia and developing nations, which together comprise the majority on the board, rejected the move as “political interference” which would undermine the IAEA’s aid programme for civilian atomic energy development. This was a view shared by a number of IAEA officials.

In the event, the IAEA agreed to help the Syrians to develop expertise with a $350,000 aid project. Reluctant Western acceptance of this project came only after strong support from ElBaradei. The document finally approved noted that: “a number of states expressed strong reservations,” and it committed the IAEA to “monitor the project closely ... and ensure that any equipment provided is used only for the purposes intended.” ElBaradei had urged approval of the aid project, saying that there was no legal basis for curbing Syria’s IAEA membership rights based on unverified accusations.

“There are claims against Syria, which we’re looking at. There were claims against Iraq, which were proven bonkers (mad), and after, the result was a terrible war,” he told the board.

No change on Iran

Introducing the report on Iran, ElBaradei said: “There remain a number of outstanding issues, relevant to the alleged studies and associated questions identified in my last report to the Board, which give rise to concerns and need to be clarified in order to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. Regrettably, the agency has not been able to make substantive progress on these issues... I also still regret the fact that the agency has not been able to share with Iran documentation [related to the alleged studies] provided by member states. I call upon the member states concerned to authorise the agency to do so.”

The report said that Iran has continued to feed UF6 into the 3000-machine IR-1 unit (Unit A24), and five cascades of Unit A26, at the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP). Installation and testing of the 13 remaining cascades of Unit A26 is continuing. Preparatory installation work at Units A25, A27 and A28 continues. As of 7 November, the total amount of UF6 fed into the cascades since the beginning of operations in February 2007 was 9750kg, and Iran is estimated to have produced approximately 630kg of low enriched UF6. All nuclear material at FEP, as well as all installed cascades, “remain under agency containment and surveillance.”

In September, the agency conducted a physical inventory verification (PIV) at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP), the results of which are pending. Between 25 August and 28 October, Iran had fed approximately 31kg of UF6 into the 10-machine IR-2 cascade and the single IR-1, IR-2 and IR-3 centrifuges. All nuclear material at PFEP, as well as the cascade area also remains under agency containment. “To date, the results of the environmental samples taken at FEP and PFEP2, and the operating records for FEP3, indicate that the plants have been operating as declared” (less than 5.0% U-235 enrichment). Since March 2007, 20 unannounced inspections have been conducted at FEP.

On reprocessing, the agency has continued to monitor the use and construction of hot cells at the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) and the molybdenum, iodine and xenon radioisotope production (MIX) facility through inspections and design information verification (DIV) and there are no indications of ongoing reprocessing related activities at those facilities.

In August, the IAEA conducted a PIV at the Fuel Manufacturing Plant (FMP), the results of which are consistent with the declaration made by Iran. An inspection in October revealed no major changes in the construction status of FMP since May.

As of 3 November 2008, approximately 33t of uranium in the form of UF6 had been produced at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) since the last PIV in March. This brings the total amount of UF6 produced at the facility since March 2004 to 348t, all of which remains under agency containment. The UCF was shut down in August for a routine maintenance and restarted operation in October.

Using satellite imagery, the IAEA has continued to monitor the status of the Heavy Water Production Plant, which appears to be in operational condition. Satellite imagery is also being used to monitor construction of the Iran Nuclear Research Reactor (IR-40) since Iran, in March 2007, suspended implementation of arrangements concerning the early provision of design information. Because of this, the agency was not permitted to carry out the DIV scheduled for October. However, it has confirmed that construction of the reactor is continuing. The IAEA requested in December 2007, but has not yet received, preliminary design information for the nuclear power plant that is to be built in Darkhovin.

Outstanding issues

A number of outstanding issues remain relating to the “alleged studies,” based on US intelligence data, which indicate weapons development, although Iran has insisted that they are forgeries. Moreover, the USA refuses to allow the agency to give copies of these studies to Iran, but still expects Iran to give detailed answers to the charges. The report says the agency currently has no information — apart from the uranium metal document (an issue dealt with in earlier reports) — “on the actual design or manufacture by Iran of nuclear material components of a nuclear weapon or of certain other key components, such as initiators, or on related nuclear physics studies. Nor has the agency detected the actual use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies.” However this issue is stalling any further progress and the agency asked Iran to cooperate in supplying the requested information.

“Iran needs to provide the agency with substantive information to support its statements and provide access to relevant documentation and individuals in this regard. Unless Iran provides such transparency, and implements the Additional Protocol, the agency will not be able to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”

Dependence on intelligence information for its investigations does not sit well with the IAEA. Opening the board meeting, ElBaradei had raised the issue of satellite imagery as a tool to assess claims of undeclared nuclear activities. He noted: “It is of course unfortunate that the agency, like the United Nations as a whole, does not have an independent satellite capability, as was proposed some years ago by France. As that is unlikely to change any time soon, we will continue to make use of available commercial and member state satellite imagery. But I should stress that, because the agency cannot verify the authenticity of such imagery, we rely on it only as an auxiliary source to corroborate other information …(and) this may mean that the agency’s assessments in some cases are inconclusive.”

After the meeting, Iran’s Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani said the IAEA should set a deadline for the USA to present evidence for its claims about Iran's nuclear programme. He told reporters on the sidelines of the Nuclear Power Plants, the Environment, and Sustainable Development conference in Tehran (see panel), that the IAEA should take the issue off its agenda if those countries that want Iran to halt its uranium enrichment programme cannot prove their allegations. He said the latest report was “ambiguous”, and criticised IAEA officials for allowing the intelligence services of certain countries to have undue influence over its activities.

Moscow’s mediation

Moscow has stressed the need for Iran to ensure full cooperation with the IAEA at a meeting in Moscow between Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, and the Iranian ambassador to Russia, Mahmud Reza Sajjadi. At the same time, Russian officials said that US president-elect Barack Obama will have to normalise relations with Iran to reach an agreement over the disputed nuclear programme, reiterating opposition to any further sanctions. Russia is hoping that “the new administration understands that there is no alternative to the political process and dialogue at all levels,” said Ryabkov in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Moscow. Asked if Obama would have to normalise ties with Iran to reach a nuclear agreement, he replied: “Yes, absolutely.”

Pressure for a US policy change is also coming from inside the USA. A panel of American diplomats and other experts have advised Obama against any further economic and military threats. “An attack would almost certainly fail,” while coercing Iran with economic sanctions has very little chance of success, the experts said in a report to a conference on the future of US-Iran policy. “Threats are not cowing Iran and the current regime in Tehran is not in imminent peril,” according to the report.

Far more likely to succeed, according to former US ambassadors Thomas Pickering and James Dobbins, Columbia University scholar Gary Sick and 17 other experts, is to “open the door to direct, unconditional and comprehensive negotiations at the senior diplomatic level.”

Author Info:

Judith Perera is Editor of McCloskey NuclearBusiness

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