Locations of Iran's Nuclear Program
Table of Contents
Iran is building a nuclear reactor near the Iranian city of Arak and currently operates a heavy water production plant in nearby Khondab, which has been active since 2006. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) first inspected the Arak site in 2003. Since then, Iran has limited the IAEA’s access to the reactor site, which remains under construction. Most recently, the IAEA noted in a June 2009 report that Iran denied an IAEA request for inspectors to access the heavy water research reactor at the Arak facility and conduct design inspections. IAEA inspection of the Arak site is a prerequisite to ensuring that Iran does not use the reactor complex under construction to separate plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel. The capability to extract plutonium from used reactor fuel would give Iran an alternative path for fueling a nuclear weapon.
The use of heavy water at Arak makes the reactor a potential source of plutonium needed for building a nuclear weapon. That is, all reactors are fueled with uranium-produced plutonium, but only a heavy water reactor provides the plutonium suitable for use in a nuclear weapon. A heavy water reactor – fueled with natural uranium – uses the deuterium isotope, instead of the hydrogen isotope used in a light-water process. The deuterium in heavy water is important because it plays a central role in a “boost gas” that can produce a lighter and smaller plutonium-fueled nuclear warhead.
A light water research reactor, on the other hand, appears more relevant for the type of civilian uses Iran claims as being Arak’s purpose. In June 2006, Iran rebuffed an offer by the U.K., France and Germany (EU-3) to help it construct a light water research reactor as an alternative to the heavy water reactor. After declining EU-3 assistance, Iran submitted an unsuccessful request the following year for technical assistance from the IAEA for its planned heavy water reactor.
Ostensibly, the Arak reactor will produce isotopes for use in civilian industries, including medicine and agriculture. Iran has acknowledged that the production plant at Arak will serve to supply the Arak reactor with heavy water, revising the government’s original claim that Iran intended to produce heavy water strictly for export markets. Burton Richter, a Nobel Laureate physicist and U.S. Department of Energy Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee member, notes that the facility under construction at Arak is far more complex than what is necessary for producing medical isotopes and, further, that there is relatively little demand for medical isotopes in Iran and the Middle East.
Nonproliferation experts at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) contend that, under ideal operating conditions, the Arak heavy water reactor could produce enough material for about two nuclear weapons each year if Iran chose to extract plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel – a technique known as reprocessing. It is unclear when the heavy water reactor at Arak will be complete. The IAEA’s June 2009 report indicated that the roofing structures over the Arak reactor and facility inhibit monitoring of construction progress.
Iran plans to begin operating a light water nuclear reactor power plant in 2009. In February 2009, Iran announced the successful testing of the Bushehr reactor. Begun in the mid 1970s, the Bushehr project temporarily halted after the 1979 Iranian revolution. In 1995, Russia agreed to restart and complete the Bushehr reactor. Despite the estimated $1 billion agreement in 1995, political, technical and financial issues delayed the operational launch of the facility.
In 2005, Russia and Iran agreed to a deal that designated Russia as the fuel supplier for the reactor, under IAEA safeguards, and required Iran to return spent nuclear fuel to Russia. By late 2007, Russia shipped the initial stock of low-enriched uranium fuel to Iran for the Bushehr reactor. The Russian nuclear firm Atomstroyeksport expects more than 2,000 Russian specialists to assist in the completion of the plant at Bushehr, according to the firm’s spokesperson.
American intelligence officials previously cited contact between Russian scientists and Iranian nuclear specialists as a conduit for Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation beyond the scope of the Bushehr reactor. In 2000, the Deputy Director for the Central Intelligence Agency’s Nonproliferation Center, A. Norman Schindler, told a U.S. Senate committee that there is evidence of interaction between Russian individuals and “Iranian nuclear research centers” on a range of activities outside the scope of the Bushehr project—activities that Iran could apply to the production of weapons grade nuclear fuel.
Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz houses the primary Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) and a research and development-oriented Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) for uranium enrichment activities. The IAEA’s concerns regarding Iran’s uranium enrichment activities—centrifuge expansion, advanced centrifuge research and testing, and a growing low enriched uranium (LEU) inventory which can be converted to weapons grade uranium—center around the site at Natanz. Iran initially declared its fuel enrichment facilities at Natanz to the IAEA during a 2003 visit by the IAEA Director General; Iran agreed to the 2003 IAEA visit following a 2002 conference at which the Director General approached Iran’s delegation to confirm media reports that Iran was “building a large underground nuclear related facility at Natanz.” 
Iran built the FEP with a capacity to house approximately 50,000 centrifuges. The centrifuges operate in 164-machine clusters (cascades). In February 2009, Iran’s atomic agency head Gholam Reza Aghazadeh claimed that Iran was operating 6,000 centrifuges. According to the June 2009 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility houses more than 7,000 centrifuges – 5,000 of which actively enrich uranium. This represents a nearly thirty percent increase over the 5,400 total centrifuges, with 3,900 actively enriching, identified by the IAEA in February.
The completion of the second module in development at Natanz will result in 6,000 operating centrifuges at the facility. According to a 2009 Center for Strategic and International Studies report (CSIS) by Anthony Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, and previous estimates by nonproliferation experts David Albright and Corey Hinderstein of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), once the FEP is at full capacity – operating 50,000 centrifuges – the plant will be able to produce approximately five hundred kilograms of weapons-grade uranium annually, enough for roughly twenty to thirty nuclear weapons.
While Iran expands the inventory of its first generation centrifuge machines, it also continues to work on advanced centrifuge technologies. Iran has significantly reduced the forty percent failure rate for its first generation centrifuges. Such technical mastery of the first-generation centrifuge allows Iran to dedicate resources to designing more advanced technologies.
The Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz serves as Iran’s primary declared research and testing facility for centrifuges. The IAEA confirmed in June 2009 that Iran conducted uranium enrichment testing with advanced centrifuges at the Natanz PFEP. Iran designed the PFEP, which it began building secretly in 2001, to accommodate nearly 1,000 centrifuges divided between six cascades. In 2008, reports indicated that Iran tested advanced centrifuge models with a capacity to enrich uranium significantly faster than first-generation centrifuge machines operating at the FEP. The second-generation centrifuge (IR-2), for instance, doubles the output of the original model.
According to a 2006 Washington Post article citing military strategist Edward Luttwak, the Natanz facility consists of more than twenty buildings and an underground complex insulated with multiple concrete roofs. Further, a National Defense University report estimates that the underground complex at Natanz – built seventy-five feet under the ground – can “withstand aerial attack.” Additionally, Iran reportedly bases critical air defense systems, such as the Russian-supplied Tor-M1 missile defense system, in proximity to the nuclear facility at Natanz. These developments, coupled with reports citing the enhancement of the underground complex, indicate that Iran has planned for an extensive defense of the Natanz facility.
Iran’s uranium enrichment at the Natanz facility relies on nuclear fuel cycle processes conducted at its nuclear facility at Esfahan. Iran conducts nuclear technology research and uranium conversion at the Esfahan site. After suspending activities at the Esfahan site in 2004 in the midst of negotiations with the IAEA, Iran restarted uranium conversion less than a year later in defiance of proposals by the U.S., European Union (EU) and Russia.
The Nuclear Technology and Research Center at Esfahan (NTRC), Iran’s largest nuclear research center, employs close to 3,000 scientists. The Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) at Esfahan sprawls out across nearly 150 acres. The UCF converts “yellowcake,” milled natural uranium, to uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6), which Iran then feeds into the centrifuge machines for enrichment at the Natanz facility. Like its Natanz facility, Iran has fortified the Esfahan complex with anti-aircraft missile systems.
Iran has been suspected of using a facility at Parchin to conduct research on explosives that can be used in a nuclear weapon device. Generally, Iran uses the large military-run Parchin complex for research and production of military hardware, including rockets and high explosives. Iran repeatedly denied the IAEA access to the facility at Parchin to investigate potential nuclear weapons program activity. Late in 2004, U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament Jackie Sanders noted Iran’s noncompliance with IAEA safeguards in refusing to allow the IAEA unrestricted access to Parchin.
Nearly one year later, Iran granted IAEA inspectors limited access to the Parchin facility. As the Institute for Science and International Security noted, even though the inspectors did not notice “unusual activities” or detect nuclear material at the buildings to which they had selective access, “suspicions about the Parchin site persist and more inspections are warranted.” For example, a U.S. State Department official confirmed reporting that IAEA inspectors spotted a high-speed camera – which can be used to monitor experimentation with high explosives suitable for use in a nuclear weapon device – at the Parchin complex.
Additionally, Iran managed IAEA visits to Parchin in a way that limited access for inspectors and raised doubts. As Pierre Goldschmidt of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted in 2006:
"In January 2005, out of four areas identified by the IAEA to be of potential interest, the IAEA was permitted to select only one area and had to limit to five the number of buildings to be visited. Limited access to one other area was granted to the IAEA in November 2005, giving the military plenty of time to remove any evidence of nuclear weaponization activities if any ever took place there."
Iran experimented with laser enrichment technology between 1991 and 2003. In 2003, Iran shut down its pilot laser enrichment facility at Lashkar Abad. The IAEA reported in 2008 that a private company now runs the Lashkar Abad laboratories. The company’s management claims that it is not currently enriching uranium, nor planning to in the future.
Iran will reportedly begin operating a $1.2 billion nuclear power plant at Darkhovin in 2016. Iran intends to power the Darkhovin plant, which Iran’s top nuclear official claimed was sixty percent complete in February 2009, with enriched uranium from Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz. The IAEA noted in its June 2009 report that an outstanding request, from 2007, for Iran to provide preliminary design details has not been satisfied.