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Iran discloses a secret nuclear facility
22 Dec, 2009 03:50 pm
Pressure for a new round of sanctions against Iran is growing. US President Barak Obama may demand new sanctions as early as January unless Iran's leaders commit in earnest to dismantling some elements of their nuclear energy programme (1). So far, sanctions against Iran have been relatively ineffective.
China with huge economic interests in Iran, particularly oil interests, is unlikely to back tough UN sanctions. And the West will be reluctant to ask for a UN resolution on sanctions knowing that China will probably veto it.
The US and Israel insist that Iran is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran will soon have the capability to produce enough fissile material, specifically highly enriched uranium, to fabricate a nuclear weapon. But Iran repeatedly denies that it has the intention to do so, claiming that its nuclear programme is solely for the production of electricity.
Be this at it may, there is a spreading resignation that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is unstoppable and that the international community should learn to live with a nuclear Iran. But many right-wing Americans and Israelis demand a military strike on Iran's key nuclear facilities to stop, or set back, Iran's progress to a nuclear-weapon capability. President Obama is, however, extremely unlikely to order the bombing of Iran. And Israel probably will not do so without American support.
What has caused the recent escalation of Iran's confrontation with the West over its nuclear programme? The main trigger was a report released by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 16 November 2009 - the IAEA's latest report on the implementation of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards in Iran and the status of Iran's compliance with three Security Council Resolutions (1737, 1747 and 1803) (2).
The report states that a new uranium-enrichment plant, built in bunkers in a mountain, at Fordo near the Holy City of Qom, about 160 kilometres south of Tehran, is at "an advanced state of construction". The plant was being built clandestinely. It raises the question: Does Iran have any other secret enrichment plants.
The IAEA report points out that Iran has so far installed no centrifuges at the Fordo plant and has introduced no uranium into it. The Agency verified Iran's declaration that the facility was designed to hold about 3000 centrifuges, of the P-1 type, although the plant could be up-graded to hold centrifuges of a more advanced design if Iran decided to do so. The plant will, according to Iran, be operational in 2011.
Iran says that it is constructing the Fordo facility in case the Natanz site, which houses Iran's existing enrichment facility, is bombed in a military strike. If Natanz is bombed, however, the Fordo plant will almost certainly be used to make weapon-grade (highly-enriched) uranium for nuclear weapons. In a state of war, all Iranian efforts would be concentrated on fabricating nuclear weapons as soon as possible.
Iran has undoubtedly made a number of other provocative actions. The latest was the successful test-firing, in an undisclosed desert location on 16 December 2009, of the Sajjil-2 ballistic missile. The missile, able to hit targets in Israel and targets in Europe, was launched in an undisclosed desert location.
Unsurprisingly, Iran feels threatened by repeated calls by Israel and right-wing Americans to bomb Iran's nuclear plants. Any military action would cost the West dearly. The economic and social consequences of disrupted oil supplies would be severe indeed. In any case, military strikes are extremely unlikely to succeed in their objective (3).
On 29 November, the international community was shocked when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cabinet gave orders for ten new uranium-enrichment plants to be built; defying UN demands that Iran curb its enrichment work.
The Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP), which is being constructed partly underground, will, according to Iran eventually house more than 50,000 centrifuges. The purpose of the plant, Iran says, is peaceful, to produce low-enriched uranium for use as fuel in nuclear-power reactors.
But, by repeatedly uranium hexafluoride gas through the centrifuges the percentage of uranium-235, the fissile isotope of uranium, can be increased from about 3.5 per cent (as required for nuclear fuel) to more than 90 per cent (as required for nuclear weapons). Currently, Iran is using P-1 type centrifuges at Natanz. Each of these could probably produce about 13 grams of weapons-grade uranium a year.
As of 2 November 2009, the number of centrifuges enriching uranium at the FEP was 3,936 (4). Iran has another 4,756 centrifuges that are not being fed with uranium. This gives a total of 8,692 centrifuges either enriching uranium, or installed at the facility. These could, in theory, produce about 50 kilograms of weapons-grade highly-enriched uranium a year, enough for about 2.5 nuclear weapons a year.
The 3,000 P-1 centrifuges at Fordo could, when operational, produce about 40 kg of weapons-grade uranium per year, enough for about two nuclear weapons a year.
Iran is reportedly experimenting with the P-2 type gas centrifuge (developing countries like Brazil, India and Pakistan are currently operating P-2 centrifuges). These should be about twice as efficient as the P-1 centrifuges.
Given Iran's current technological capability, it is reasonable to assume that about 60% of its centrifuges would have to be rejected as sub-standard. Iran would, therefore, need to produce approximately 5,000 centrifuges for the Fordo facility. Moreover, gas centrifuges break down frequently because of mechanical stress and Iran would need to secure access to a steady supply of replacement machines.
The operation of ten more Natanz-size enrichment plants would require at least 830,000 P-1 centrifuges, or more than 400,000 P-2 centrifuges, and a steady supply of new replacement ones.
Iran would also need access to large quantities of maraging steel or carbon fibre to fabricate this huge number of centrifuges. It is, to say the least, hard to see where this material would come from.
How realistic are Iran's plans? Given that it is currently producing only about 2,000 centrifuges a year, its plans seem hopelessly unrealistic.
The future of Iran's nuclear programme is difficult to judge - rhetoric has to be separated from reality. There is no reason to doubt that Iran could in time be operating a number of nuclear-power reactors and manufacturing the nuclear fuel for them. Only time will tell what political decisions the Iranians will take about acquiring nuclear weapons.
Peaceful nuclear technology and military nuclear technology are one and the same. This is a fact that we have to face. The more countries that participate in the nuclear renaissance, the more uncomfortable this fact will become.
References 1. Tony Romm, Iran sanctions to be mulled in January , The Hill's Blog Briefing Room, 16 December 2009. www. thehill.com/blogs/.../70803-wh-mulling- iran - sanctions -in-january
2. IAEA Board Report , Latest IAEA Safeguards Reports Sent to IAEA Board , 16 November 2009. www. iaea .org/NewsCenter/Focus/ IaeaIran /index.shtml
3. Frank Barnaby, Would Air Strikes Work? Oxford Research Group, Briefing Paper, March 2007. www. oxfordresearchgroup .org.uk/
4. David Albright, Jacqueline Shire and Paul Brannan, Institute for Science and International Security report, IAEA Report on Iran: Fordow enrichment plant at "advanced stage of construction" 16 November 2009. www. isis nucleariran.org/ reports /