Iran Nuclear-Fuel Plan Spurs Uncertainty in West

Diane Barnes, Global Security Newswire
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Diane Barnes, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 25, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Atom­ic-en­ergy plans un­veiled this week by a top Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar of­fi­cial could cast doubt on Tehran’s read­i­ness to ne­go­ti­ate lim­its on fuel-pro­duc­tion tech­no­lo­gies that also could gen­er­ate bomb ma­ter­i­al, West­ern is­sue ex­perts told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

The United States and five oth­er coun­tries have been ex­pec­ted to press Ir­an in on­go­ing talks to dis­mantle at least a por­tion of its urani­um-en­rich­ment cent­ri­fuges — a move that could pre­vent the Middle East­ern coun­try from rap­idly mak­ing enough highly en­riched fuel for a nuc­le­ar weapon, ana­lysts said. Tehran has main­tained for years that it only wants its nuc­le­ar equip­ment for non­mil­it­ary use, but its as­sur­ances have so far failed to sway Wash­ing­ton and U.S. al­lies.

In re­cent days, the dy­nam­ics of these latest, be­hind-closed-doors talks on Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar as­pir­a­tions — launched in Geneva on Oct. 15 by the sev­en na­tions’ polit­ic­al dir­ect­ors, who plan to meet again on Nov. 7 — may have changed. The stakes are high, as a col­lapse in ne­go­ti­ations could leave the sides with no clear route to re­solve the stan­doff that some fear could es­cal­ate in­to war.

On Tues­day, Ir­an’s atom­ic en­ergy or­gan­iz­a­tion in­dic­ated the coun­try might soon be­gin pro­du­cing its own power-plant fuel. This move has promp­ted some ana­lysts to ques­tion wheth­er the coun­try is will­ing to re­duce its quant­ity of en­rich­ment cent­ri­fuges, a move that could prove cru­cial to de­fus­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al stan­doff.

The six coun­tries ne­go­ti­at­ing with Ir­an want to en­sure that if the Middle East­ern coun­try de­cided to use its cent­ri­fuges to pro­duce nuc­le­ar-bomb ma­ter­i­al, oth­er gov­ern­ments would have time to re­spond with mil­it­ary or oth­er meas­ures be­fore Tehran could pro­duce enough fuel for a weapon, a former Obama WMD czar and oth­er ex­perts have in­dic­ated.

This week’s rev­el­a­tion that Ir­an could start mak­ing its own atom­ic fuel has “in­ter­est­ing” tim­ing, be­cause the na­tion’s ne­go­ti­at­ors have in­sisted on the con­fid­en­ti­al­ity of their dis­cus­sions with the five per­man­ent U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil mem­ber na­tions and Ger­many, said Si­mon Hende­r­son, dir­ect­or of the Gulf and En­ergy Policy Pro­gram at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Policy.

Ir­an plans in three months to start man­u­fac­tur­ing “urani­um di­ox­ide” to “feed” its single nuc­le­ar power plant, a state me­dia re­port quoted agency head Ali Ak­bar Salehi as say­ing.

The Ir­a­ni­an news art­icle ap­pears to refer to the pro­duc­tion of urani­um fuel rods, a pro­cess in which urani­um di­ox­ide is an “in­ter­me­di­ate product,” Hende­r­son said in a brief tele­phone in­ter­view.

“The Rus­si­ans would prob­ably be very happy to con­tin­ue sup­ply­ing the fuel, but the Ir­a­ni­ans are es­sen­tially sig­nal­ing that [if] they want to fuel this re­act­or them­selves, they need to re­tain a very large en­rich­ment ca­pa­city,” the ana­lyst said.

He ad­ded it is im­possible to know wheth­er Salehi’s an­nounce­ment was a ne­go­ti­ation tac­tic co­ordin­ated with dip­lo­mats.

Ir­an would need between 60,000 and 100,000 of its most-ba­sic cent­ri­fuge mod­el — more than three times the num­ber it now pos­sesses — to fully take over fuel pro­duc­tion for its nuc­le­ar plant at Bushehr, said Dav­id Al­bright, head of the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tion­al Se­cur­ity in Wash­ing­ton.

That quant­ity might be enough to run the Bushehr re­act­or, but Salehi on Thursday re­af­firmed plans to build more atom­ic en­ergy sites that would re­quire ad­di­tion­al fuel.

Speak­ing to GSN by tele­phone, Al­bright said Ir­an would have to cap its en­rich­ment pro­gram at no more than 10,000 “IR-1” ma­chines to provide a six-month buf­fer peri­od ad­equate for an in­ter­na­tion­al re­sponse if the na­tion tried to pro­duce nuc­le­ar-weapon fuel.

Meet­ing that re­quire­ment would re­quire Ir­an to dis­mantle some of its en­rich­ment equip­ment already in place, ac­cord­ing to In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency data high­lighted in a Thursday ana­lys­is by Al­bright’s or­gan­iz­a­tion.

As of Au­gust, Ir­an had more than 19,000 IR-1 cent­ri­fuges in­stalled at its main en­rich­ment plant and in a hardened bunker fa­cil­ity, ac­cord­ing to the find­ings. Of those ma­chines, 10,190 were act­ively en­rich­ing urani­um.

Al­bright, though, cau­tioned against view­ing Salehi’s an­nounce­ment in a strictly neg­at­ive light.

“It cuts both ways,” he said, be­cause fuel rods are harder to con­vert in­to bomb fuel than their pre­curs­or ma­ter­i­al, low-en­riched urani­um hex­a­flu­or­ide. Ir­an has already amassed tens of thou­sands of pounds of the lat­ter sub­stance.

Former U.S. State De­part­ment of­fi­cial Mark Fitzpatrick said Ir­an’s fuel-pro­duc­tion an­nounce­ment lines up with its pre­vi­ously stated pro­pos­al to pro­duce power-re­act­or ma­ter­i­al from stock­piled urani­um.

However, he ad­ded in an e-mail that the Middle East­ern na­tion might not be cap­able of gen­er­at­ing ma­ter­i­al for use in its own power re­act­or.

“I doubt that Rus­sia has provided the spe­cific­a­tions that would al­low Ir­an to safely use do­mest­ic­ally pro­duced fuel rods in the Bushehr re­act­or,” said Fitzpatrick, who now heads the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion and Dis­arm­a­ment Pro­gram at the Lon­don-based In­ter­na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Stra­tegic Stud­ies.

The nuc­le­ar plant was con­struc­ted by a Rus­si­an state-run con­tract­or, which man­aged the site un­til last month.

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