Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on 10 April unveiled 133 new nuclear achievements in the provinces of Tehran, Markazi, Isfahan, Alborz and Qom to mark the 15th anniversary of the National Nuclear Technology Day. In a ceremony held via videoconference he gave the order for Iranian scientists to begin injecting uranium hexafluoride gas to a pilot cascade of 164 new generation IR6 centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility. He also announced that Iran has started mechanical testing of IR-9 centrifuges and launched an assembly line for their production.
Meanwhile talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), continue to be reported as positive with negotiations set to continue. Under the JCPOA between Iran the P5+1 group of countries (the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) Iran agreed to limit its nuclear development in return for the lifting of sanctions. After former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018, Iran began reviving its nuclear programme while informing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the steps being taken. The Vienna talks, which involve all the parties to the JCPOA, aim to bring the USA back into the agreement. Iran has insisted that it will not talk directly with the US until sanctions are lifted.
At the ceremony marking National Nuclear Technology Day, Rouhani said one of the honourable effects of the JCPOA was that it completely legalised the nuclear industry in Iran. “I reiterate that all our nuclear activities are peaceful and for civilian purposes. As Leader [Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei] has repeatedly stated, in our religion, pursuing a weapon that can be a great danger to a large community is forbidden,” he noted.
He thanked Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), and the AEOI staff for the achievements of the past year. He said the new cascade of IR6 centrifuges was 10 times more efficient than the previous cascade and that the IR9 centrifuge was 50-60 times more efficient.
Other key projects and products unveiled included the second phase of industrial plants producing deuterated compounds in Khandab in Arak, an emergency care for burns using radiation therapy in Arak, six nuclear enrichment projects in Natanz, disk lasers, the Iran Quantum Technologies Centre in Tehran, a number of centrifuge machines used by the Blood Transfusion Organisation of Iran, and 110 isotope-based biomolecules used in neonatal screening kits.
Among other achievements were a device for online metering of uranium hexafluoride purity, four new radiopharmaceuticals, the prototypes of IR9S and IR9-1B centrifuge machines for enriching uranium, and a 3D metal printer using lasers.
AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi told the "Look One" that the organisation’s work extends to industry, agriculture and medicine as well as nuclear development. Its achievements include freshly produced rice that is drought tolerant and irradiation systems that are used to extend the life of agricultural products such as dates as well as “the construction of a special centrifuge that is needed in the pharmaceutical industry”. AEOI is “also a leader in the production of radiopharmaceuticals” including the Tetra project, “which is unique in the Middle East and is 37,000 square metres full of equipment and research in the field of radiopharmaceuticals, the first part of which, God willing, will be ready in September”.
As to centrifuges, he said the first machines were imported in 1968 and taken apart. “In 1976 we put them together and in 1986 we were able to launch a cascade.” He noted that the centrifuge has about 100 components and spins at 60,000 rpm and that the slightest discrepancy damages the machine. Iran decided to build its own machines in 1985 and the second and fourth generations were designed. “Of course these were copies of the Pakistani P2 machine until 1992, when we tried to enter the began to study centrifuge construction. We wrote the software and used it to design domestic centrifuges.”
Noting that the centrifuge assembly hall was destroyed by an explosion, he said this did not stop progress. “We built a new hall in the heart of the mountain near Natanz. We are working to move these sensitive halls to the heart of the mountain, and we hope they will be ready next year and we will then move these facilities there.”
He said that in Europe it takes at least 8 to 10 years to develop a centrifuge as an industrial machine “but in Iran, of course, it takes longer”. Development and testing of IR6 machines has been underway for almost 10 years, “and we have not yet reached the final stage of mass production”. He added that Iran now has about 15 types of centrifuges. He noted that the law passed by parliament in February stipulates construction of 1,000 IR6 machines. “We hope that this year we will be able to correct the shortcomings in the design of this machine. These machines are expensive equipment. Those that are currently being installed are a pilot cascade. We now have 16,500 units of enrichment capacity and it is constantly being added to. We are currently moving forward with slow and calculated steps.”
Salehi said that a short time, Iran had installed and commissioned 1,000 IRM2 machines and had launched an IR6 cascade – all indigenous technology. “We produced more than 3,000 technical documents for each machine - we are now a centrifuge designer.”
He added that the IR9 is five metres long and has five bellows, but its testing will take 7-8 years. Mass production of the IR6 could start immediately “but we will wait until we are sure they have the necessary resilience”.
Salehi also spoke about problems facing the National Ion Therapy Centre in Alborz - the first proton and carbon radiation cancer treatment centre in Iran and the Middle East, which is equipped with a synchrotron accelerator. He noted that US sanctions had made finding funding to equip the centre very difficult. And such problems extend further. "If we can export nuclear electricity, we will no longer have to ask for funding from the government." AEOI has 20,000 staff and it is in debt to the central bank to the tune of 5,000bn tomans (approx. $11.8bn). AEOI heavily subsidises its radiopharmaceuticals and many are supplied free.
Turning to recent Western criticism of Iran’s production of uranium metal, Salehi said there was a lot of confusion about this issue. The Tehran research reactor uses old fuel “and we must look for a new fuel that is at the forefront of knowledge”. Uranium alloy with silica is required to make this fuel and metallic uranium is one stage in its production, “but it is melted with silicon and becomes an alloy which turns into powder again, in other words, metallic uranium is not then end product”. He added: "We produced a sample of uranium silica alloy and fortunately it was high purity and we will use this fuel for the Tehran reactor in the future."
Other recent achievements Salehi touched on included the manufacture of 100-ton casks for used fuel. “It was the first time that Iran was able to cast such a heavy piece of steel,” he said. The casks can hold 16 to 18 fuel assemblies. AEOI is also working on the design of small reactors, which he described as safer than large reactors but technologically complex. “We had detailed negotiations with China and we were going to sign a contract for two 100 MW reactors,” he added.
The following day, AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said an incident took place at the electricity distribution network of Shahid Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan uranium enrichment centre in Natanz causing loss of power in the area. He added that the incident had not caused any injuries to staff and had not resulted in pollution and that an investigation was underway. Salehi said it was an act of sabotage, noting that the international community, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), must deal with such “nuclear terrorism” that targets Iran’s facilities.
Israel's public radio quoted unidentified intelligence sources as saying that Israel's Mossad had carried out a cyber attack against Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, Reuters reported. Israel is also believed to be responsible for the explosion in July 2020, which destroyed Iran’s centrifuge assembly facility. In 2010, the Stuxnet computer virus, widely believed to have been developed by the USA and Israel, was discovered after it was used to attack Natanz.
“This incident happening on the anniversary of National Nuclear Technology Day and during the process of Iran’s efforts to force the westerners to lift the sanctions is very suspicious,” Malek Shariati-Niasar, a spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s energy committee, wrote in a Tweet.