Iran defiantPosted: 15/02/2012
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
Today Iran announced three advances in its nuclear programme, calculated to show that it won’t be impeded by sanctions, sabotage or assassinations. Two of these announcements were about progress in gas centrifuge technology, heightening concerns about Tehran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities. Iran supposedly has increased the number of working centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant from 6,000 to 9,000. It also claims to have produced a ‘fourth-generation’ centrifuge.
If both of these announcements are true, then the timeline will be significantly shortened for Iran to be able to build nuclear weapons, if a decision were made to do so. But it will be important to know how many of those 3,000 additional centrifuges will actually work, and how well. The same applies for the supposed fourth-generation model. Iran has been working for more than 15 years on various second-generation models that it still has not perfected, in part because sanctions and other restrictions have impeded its ability to acquire the necessary material from abroad. Two years ago Iran unveiled a ‘third-generation’ model, but then said nothing more about it.
These announcements will further enflame talk of military options, which has reached feverish pitch in some quarters in Israel and the US. But even in the highly unlikely event that everything Iran has announced is true, it would still take Iran a couple of years to produce a handful of weapons. Any such decision to dash for weapons would surely be noticed by the international inspectors.
The remaining announcement – Iran’s claim that it’s now fuelling its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) with domestically produced fuel plates, using 19.75% enriched uranium – is benign, except in terms of nuclear safety for Iranians themselves. The reactor is used to make medical isotopes for cancer patients, an eminently peaceful purpose. But enrichment at this level is very close to being weapons usable, so it has been one of the most worrisome aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Until now, the fact that Iran could not actually manufacture the fuel gave the lie to this excuse for the 19.75% enrichment. Making the fuel is not actually that difficult, but the new fuel needs to be tested for a considerable period in an operational reactor to be sure it is safe, especially since Iran does not have the fuel specifications from the original manufacturers in Argentina.
If Iran is really running the reactor with untested fuel plates, then it will be terribly unsafe for the nearby residents, as explained in the IISS Strategic Dossier on Iran’s Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Capabilities published last year. More likely, Iran is testing the fuel plates, rather than using them to power the TRR. But saying otherwise is a way for Iran to say that it is no longer interested in making any concessions to obtain foreign-supplied reactor fuel.