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Iran Raises Uranium Output as Photos Show Need for Wider Checks

November 4, 2009

Satellite photos indicate that Iran has increased production at a uranium mine, underscoring the need for wider UN inspections to determine whether the country is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

Evidence of stepped-up activity at the Gchine mine, near the Persian Gulf coast city of Bandar Abbas, is seen in pictures obtained by Bloomberg News and the Washington-based New America Foundation, according to four nuclear analysts who examined the images. The mine could produce enough uranium to craft at least two atomic bombs a year, experts said.

The photographs, taken on April 26 and Oct. 3 by DigitalGlobe Inc. and GeoEye Inc., two U.S. commercial satellite companies, show Iran increased the rate at which it pumps waste from the mine during the intervening months. Iran has filled one waste pool since November 2008, when a previous photograph was taken, and built a second pond with pipes connecting it to processing tanks that separate the metal from rock.

“Iran’s decision to expand mining and milling at Bandar Abbas seems to validate the suspicions of those who think it was the main uranium site for a covert program,” Jeffrey G. Lewis, nuclear strategy and non-proliferation director at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute, said in an Oct. 20 interview.

The increased uranium production indicates that United Nations inspectors need to widen their field of vision beyond facilities such as Iran’s uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz and its Esfahan conversion facility, Lewis and other analysts said. The UN’s nuclear agency should renew demands to inspect research labs, machine shops and mines including Gchine, they added.

Top Priority

The international community’s top priority should be to gain “considerably more access into the Iranian program as a whole so that there is a verifiable distance between Iran’s option to build a bomb and the exercise of that option,” said Lewis, who formerly ran the nuclear non-proliferation research program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The U.S. and several allies say Iran’s atomic work is cover for the development of a weapon, while the government in Tehran insists that the program is peaceful and intended for civilian purposes such as electricity generation.

Iran has been under investigation by the UN since 2003 because it concealed nuclear work from the world body’s International Atomic Energy Agency for two decades. It is subject to three sets of UN economic sanctions for ignoring Security Council demands that it suspend uranium enrichment and related work and allow wider inspections.

Weapon Fears

The IAEA said Oct. 29 that it would consult with world powers and Iran after the country failed to fully accept a UN- brokered plan for Russia to process nuclear fuel for a medical- research reactor in Tehran. Iran said its “technical and economic concerns” had to be addressed.

The proposal would slow any effort by Iran to make a weapon with its 1,500-kilogram (3,300-pound) stockpile of low-enriched uranium and, if accepted, improve prospects for international talks aimed at ensuring that the country doesn’t produce a bomb.

Holder of the world’s No. 2 oil and natural gas reserves, Iran has been using about 530 tons of uranium obtained from South Africa in 1982 to fuel its declared enrichment program, centered at the Natanz plant, about 210 kilometers (130 miles) south of Tehran. IAEA inspectors have long sought to establish whether Iran has an alternative fuel source for a nuclear effort running in parallel with the declared program.

Yellowcake

The Gchine site, which Iran no longer allows the IAEA to visit, could produce enough raw uranium for processing into two warheads a year if Iran chose to secretly enrich the uranium to weapons grade, according to calculations by the Verification Research, Training and Information Center, a London-based institute that is a non-governmental observer at the IAEA and funded by European governments.

Gchine has the capacity to produce annually up to 21 tons of milled uranium, or yellowcake, Iran told the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency, part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2007. Satellite photographs taken last year showed that the mine was only beginning operations and not working at capacity.

“Although the mill has a design capacity of 21 tons of yellowcake per year, it has actually operated at much lower levels,” Lewis said. “The construction of a much larger pond suggests Iran is moving toward operating the mill at its design capacity.”

About half that amount, or 9,000 kilograms of yellowcake, would be needed to produce the 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of 93 percent enriched uranium required for a weapon, according to the verification center.

History of Concealment

The satellite photos, while showing that Iran is ramping up capacity, can’t pinpoint the amount of uranium being produced, the analysts said. Inspections would be needed to find out how close to production capacity Iran is at the mine.

“Given Iran’s history of concealing nuclear facilities, an effective safeguards regime needs to cover all of Iran’s nuclear activities from the moment the ore comes out of the earth at Bandar Abbas and elsewhere,” Lewis said.

An IAEA agreement with Iran, which allows inspection of declared nuclear sites such as Natanz and Esfahan, located about 340 kilometers south of Tehran, doesn’t extend to mining operations.

Inspectors gained some access to Gchine from 2003 until 2006, when Iran stopped complying with an IAEA agreement that allowed for more stringent investigations. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ceased Iran’s cooperation with the so-called Additional Protocol in 2006 in retaliation for the IAEA’s referral of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear work to the Security Council.

Heavy-Water Reactor

The agency has repeatedly requested more access to the mine as well as other sites involved in Iran’s atomic work, most recently in a Sept. 9 report.

The Additional Protocol, created in 1997 after the discovery that Iraq and North Korea had atomic programs, would give inspectors access to places beyond Gchine, such as an incomplete heavy-water reactor in Arak, 240 kilometers south of Tehran, and plants that make centrifuges used in uranium enrichment. Inspectors would also be allowed to take water and soil samples and talk with key figures in Iran’s nuclear program.

What the international community “would like to know now is where all that uranium yellowcake is going,” Andreas Persbo, executive director of the verification institute, said in an Oct. 21 interview.

Chain Reaction

Two of the four analysts who examined the satellite images and confirmed the production increase declined to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly on the issue. The two satellite image companies regularly take pictures of countries such as Iran and sell the photographs to interested governments and scientists.

Inspectors don’t know whether all of the mine’s output is going to Esfahan for conversion, whether some is being stockpiled at the mine or whether it is being secretly transferred to an undeclared site, said Persbo. Iran hasn’t reported details of the output.

At the conversion stage, yellowcake is turned into uranium hexafluoride gas. It is then transported in casks to Natanz, where centrifuges isolate the uranium-235 isotope used in a nuclear chain reaction.

Iran could produce a warhead without the IAEA’s knowledge if secret facilities to convert and enrich the uranium mined at Gchine were used, according to the analysts.

Underground Facility

Iran told the IAEA about a previously secret underground enrichment plant, called Fordo, some 160 kilometers south of Tehran, in September. IAEA inspectors undertook a four-day visit to the site and will report their findings to the organization’s 35-member board of governors.

Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Aliasghar Soltanieh, when reached by telephone yesterday, wouldn’t confirm that production had increased at Gchine or comment on whether the country would submit to wider inspections.

The IAEA declined to comment on the satellite photographs. U.S. diplomats also declined to comment and referred Bloomberg News to an Oct. 21 speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“The International Atomic Energy Agency doesn’t have the tools or authority to carry out its mission effectively,” Clinton said in the Washington speech. “We saw this in the institution’s failure to detect Iran’s covert enrichment plant.”

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