Iran Nuclear Efforts Face Critical Limits

Article excerpt

Iran continues to face considerable technical difficulties with key aspects of its nuclear program, the former head of safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in October.

Olli Heinonen, who was the deputy director-general for safeguards at the IAEA until August, said in an Oct. 22 interview with Haaretz that because of problems Iran is facing with its gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment plant, "they are losing materials... and so, with this defective equipment, they will have a hard time enriching the material to a level high enough to enable the production of nuclear weapons."

Deficiencies in the centrifuge operations have led to substantial amounts of wasted uranium hexafluoride gas, the feedstock for enrichment. At higher enrichment levels, these deficiencies become more severe, wasting larger mounts of material.

Iran's uranium-enrichment program lies at the center of concerns surrounding its nuclear ambitions. Gas centrifuges are used to enrich uranium to low concentrations of the fissile isotope uranium-235 for use in power or to higher concentrations, which can be used in nuclear weapons. Tehran claims that its enrichment program is intended only to produce fuel for nuclear power reactors. Many countries, however, have charged that the real purpose is to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons.

Heinonen's assessment echoes that of U.S. administration officials who have asserted that Iran's technical difficulties provide time to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Gary Samore, the White House arms control coordinator, said during a May 11 press briefing that because of technical hurdles with Iran's enrichment program, "the nuclear clock is not ticking as quickly as some had feared."

These technical challenges also appear to be borne out in IAEA reports on Iran's program. The latest such report, in September, indicates that Iran's commercial-scale enrichment facility at Natanz currently houses about 8,800 centrifuges, but only about 3,700 are operating. (See .4CT, October 2010.)

In addition to Iran's difficulty operating the centrifuges it has built, due to a lack of critical materials such as maraging steel, it likely faces an upper limit on the number of machines it can produce.

Knowledgeable sources said in October that Iran likely only has enough materials for about 12,000 machines. The IAEA has previously estimated that Iran had enough components to manufacture about 10,000 machines. (See ACT, December 2008.)

Iranian officials have said that the Natanz plant is intended ultimately to run about 50,000 centrifuges.

The centrifuges Iran is currently operating are based on a 1970s-vintage Dutch design acquired through the nuclear smuggling network led by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. Called the P-I, the centrifuge design is known to be problematic.

Iran has been developing more-advanced centrifuge designs based on the so-called P-2 machine, but to date has tested only small numbers of those centrifuges. Iran is also believed to be dependent on outside sources of critical materials, such as carbon fiber, for its advanced centrifuges.

International sanctions prohibit the export to Iran of materials and technology that could be used in a gas centrifuge program.

Heinonen told Haaretz that due to the technical challenges Iran is facing, it is not likely to have the capacity to produce HEU for weapons for another one to two years.

Such hurdles do not pertain only to Iran's enrichment program. Over the past several years, Iranian officials have justified their controversial enrichment program by describing an ambitious plan to build nuclear power reactors. However, Tehran does not appear capable of fulfilling such aims, particularly under international sanctions.

In the latest iteration of Tehran's nuclear power plans, parliamentary spokesman Kazem (alali told reporters Oct. …