Is Iran building a secret gas centrifuge plant?

The following text is excerpted from the October 3, 2013 Testimony of David Albright Before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Albright is President and Founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

The question of whether Iran is building a third enrichment plant in secret has been an open one since then Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi claimed on August 16, 2010 that “studies for the location of 10 other uranium enrichment facilities” had ended, and that “the construction of one of these facilities will begin by the end of the (current Iranian) year (March 2011) or start of the next year.” Succeeding nuclear head Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani said in mid-2011 that construction on additional enrichment plants was delayed by two years. Now, over two years later, is Iran building a new centrifuge plant in addition to the Natanz and Fordow centrifuge plants? Or is the plant deferred for another year? Iran in the past secretly constructed the Natanz centrifuge site, the Kalaye Electric centrifuge research and development plant, and the deeply buried Fordow centrifuge facility.

Since March 2007, Iran has taken the position that it does not have to notify the IAEA if it begins construction of a nuclear facility, but the IAEA says that Iran has a legal obligation to do so under its current safeguards agreement. Iran’s provision of information about the construction of any new enrichment sites is pertinent to instilling confidence about the peaceful nature of its nuclear activities and that it will not make weapon-grade uranium in secret.

It remains for Iran to abide by the simple provision of its IAEA safeguards agreement, modified Code 3.1, to provide the IAEA with advance information about its construction of additional enrichment facilities and to explain any current construction of a third enrichment site. In avoiding its responsibility under its safeguards agreement, Iran risks that any site subsequently discovered being built in secret will be viewed as a threat, increasing the risks of military confrontation and undermining the credibility of President
Rouhani and the regime.

But an important question is how quickly could a secret site outfitted with IR-2m centrifuges produce WGU? Little is known about Iran’s manufacture of these centrifuges or the total number manufactured to date or planned to be made in the next year. The IAEA is currently unable to monitor centrifuge manufacturing.

To understand this case better, ISIS and its University of Virginia collaborators performed two estimates. Each assumes that the covert plant contains 3,000 IR-2m centrifuges, a size consistent with the Fordow plant, and the plant design has other similarities to that of the Fordow plant (in particular that the covert plant is not optimized for weapon-grade uranium production). The output of each centrifuge is considered slightly more than about 3-5 times that of the IR-1 centrifuges. [Each IR-2m centrifuge is assumed to have an output of 3-5 separative work units per year.]

The first case considers that Iran would divert safeguarded stocks of LEU to this plant. The IAEA would detect the diversion of the LEU within a few weeks; however, the centrifuge site would be unknown and immune from military strikes, complicating enormously any U.S. or international response. In this case, Iran would use both of its 3.5 percent and near 20 percent LEU stocks, which are assumed to be at current levels. In this case, Iran could produce 25 kg of WGU in 1.3 – 2.3 months before using up its current stock of near 20 percent LEU stockpile. Without using its 20 percent stockpile, and using only its 3.5 percent LEU stock, Iran could produce 25 kg of WGU in 2.2 – 4.5 months with enough 3.5 percent inventory for approximately 100 WGU. If Iran had sufficient near 20 percent LEU for one nuclear weapon, it could reduce breakout times to about one month.

The second case is that Iran would not use its safeguarded LEU but a secret stock of natural uranium hexafluoride that it produced at a secret production plant. In this case, Iran would need 6.4 to 11 months to produce 25 kg of WGU.

Read the entire text of this testimony in this PDF file from the ISIS website.

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