(February 21, 2021 / BESA Center)
Samples collected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at two Iranian sites where Tehran has not reported any nuclear activity showed traces of radioactivity. Although the IAEA refrained from naming the sites in its quarterly report of June 5, 2020, they were identified last year by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington. The identification was based on information extracted from the Iranian nuclear archive smuggled out of Tehran and into Israel in January 2018.
The first site visited by IAEA inspectors in August 2020 was a pilot plant for uranium conversion, with an emphasis on the production of UF6 (uranium hexafluoride, a uranium compound which, in its gaseous phase, enables the enrichment of uranium by centrifuges). This site, located about 47 miles southeast of Tehran, operated under the aegis of the Amad military nuclear program. In documents from the Iranian nuclear archive, this location is referred to as the “Tehran Site.” The facility was dismantled in 2004.
The other site was Marivan, located near the town of Abadeh in central Iran. This facility, also part of the Amad program, was designed to conduct “cold tests” of nuclear weapons (that is, to simulate the activation of a nuclear explosive device using natural uranium rather than weapons-grade uranium). This included operating a multipoint explosive system for the activation of a nuclear weapon, as well as the development of its neutron initiator.
According to satellite imagery published by ISIS, Iran razed part of the Marivan facility in July 2019, more than a year before they allowed IAEA inspectors access to it. It is likely that this was done to prevent exposure to nuclear activities that had taken place there in the past. (This was not the first time the Islamic regime had razed nuclear sites: it did so at the Lavizan-Shian facility in Tehran in 2004 and the Parchin facility in 2012.) It is possible that the traces of radioactive materials found in samples taken by IAEA inspectors in August 2020 indicate renewed efforts to develop a neutron initiator for nuclear weapons previously conducted at the Marivan site.
The IAEA report of June 5, 2020, referred to a third location as well. Though its name was not revealed in the report, it was implied that it was the facility the regime had previously operated in Lavizan-Shian. This suspicion was based on the fact that between 2002 and 2003, a metallic natural uranium disc was found at the site that had been processed by drilling and hydriding (compressing hydrogen atoms inside uranium), an activity Iran neither reported to the IAEA nor provided an explanation for. This finding suggests that the regime had attempted to develop a UD3 neutron initiator at the site.
In addition to all of the above, Iran periodically intensifies its confrontation with the IAEA, causing great concern to the United States and the West. The following are examples:
• Iran began enriching uranium to 20 percent, a level that can serve as a springboard to 90 percent (weapons-grade). The regime announced on Jan. 28 that it had accumulated 17 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium and intends to reach an annual production capacity of 120 kg. Note that 150-200 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium are required to reach 15-20 kg of 90 percent enriched uranium. (According to other calculations, Iran could accumulate 90 percent enriched uranium for its first bomb within a matter of a few months.)
• Iran recently installed three cascades at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, each containing 174 advanced IR-2m centrifuges. They were scheduled to go into operation as early as Jan. 30, with the aim of reaching 1,000 operational centrifuges of this type at Natanz within three months. Iran also began installing two cascades, each with about 170 of the more advanced IR-6 centrifuges, at the Fordow enrichment facility.
• On Jan. 13, Iran informed the IAEA that it was researching the production of metallic uranium—an activity which, if true, is another violation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement. Britain, France and Germany have expressed concern that the metallic uranium produced by Iran will be used for nuclear weapons development.
• Iran has not yet provided the IAEA with a plausible explanation for the low-enriched uranium particles found by agency inspectors in 2019 in samples taken from a warehouse at the Turquzabad site in Tehran. An IAEA report from last November said the particulate compounds were similar to particulates found in Iran in the past that turned out to have been from imported centrifuge components (purchased from Pakistan, according to earlier publications). This theory was backed up by the fact that the particles included (among other things) the uranium-236 isotope, which does not exist in nature but is formed as a result of neutron capture by the uranium-235 nucleus—a process that takes place inside a nuclear reactor. As far as is known, it is unlikely that the process of manufacturing the particulates containing uranium-236 took place in Iran.
The problem of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is now largely in the hands of Joe Biden, though he is not enthusiastic about taking it on. Biden stated during his election campaign that he intends to return the United States to the JCPOA, albeit with amendments, and remove the sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration, but it is doubtful that he has formulated a clear policy on this issue so far. He did, however, announce on Feb. 8 that the United States will not lift sanctions until Iran fulfills its obligations under the JCPOA.
U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said on Feb. 1 that the breakout time in which Iran might ramp up enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade “has gone from beyond a year [under the deal] to about three or four months.” He also said an agreement with Iran should be “longer and stronger.” However, many of Biden’s newly appointed officials (including Blinken) are former members of Barack Obama’s administration who were deeply involved in negotiating the JCPOA. The appointment of Robert Malley as the U.S. special envoy to Iran raises particular concerns. If the United States does return to a courtship of Tehran, the task of dealing with the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons may be left primarily to Israel.
IDF Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Raphael Ofek, a BESA Center Research Associate, is an expert in the field of nuclear physics and technology who served as a senior analyst in the Israeli intelligence community.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
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