Iran Expanding Nuclear Enrichment Capacity and Stockpiles

August 30, 2012
IAEA chief inspector Herman Nackaerts and Iran's IAEA ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh brief the media after a meeting at the Iranian embassy in Vienna, August 24, 2012 (Reuters)

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) latest report on Iran’s known nuclear facilities highlights the regime’s progressing and undeterred pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. Iran’s continued production of low-enriched uranium is increasing the feedstock available for rapid conversion to nuclear weapons fuel. Its significant, unexpected expansion of the buried enrichment facility at Fordow in the last three months will further reduce the time needed to produce this fuel. These advances demonstrate that various policy declarations, negotiations, and increasing sanctions have not halted Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its progress toward a faster breakout capability.

Iran has increased its stockpiles of both civilian reactor-grade (<5%) and research reactor-grade (near-20%) low-enriched uranium fuel while installing additional centrifuges for enrichment at the more hardened Fordow facility. Civilian reactor-grade fuel is 75% of the way to weapons-grade material; research reactor-grade fuel is 90% of the way to weapons-grade fuel. The growing stockpiles of both types are increasing the number of bombs Iran could fuel while simultaneously reducing the amount of additional time and effort needed for weapons fuel production (the most difficult step in developing an atomic bomb).

Between May and August 2012, Iran produced an additional 454.9 kg of uranium enriched to civilian reactor-grade levels and 29.3 kg of uranium enriched to research reactor-grade levels.[1] It has produced enough low-enriched uranium at these levels to fuel five nuclear weapons after conversion to bomb-grade. Its total production of research reactor-grade enriched uranium is approaching the quantity needed for a short sprint to produce bomb-grade fuel for one warhead. Iran, based on its production rate over the last three months, will amass this quantity by late September. A portion of this material has been converted into fuel plates for the Tehran research reactor; however, nuclear proliferation experts have noted that these plates can be converted back into enriched uranium in short order.

Iran is producing the majority of its research reactor-grade material at the Fordow facility, which is built into a small mountain outside Qom. Since May, the regime has doubled its enrichment capacity there by installing at least 1,044 additional first-generation centrifuges. It now has over 2,000 centrifuges present at that facility and is enriching with 696 of those machines. This dramatic increase in the number of centrifuges available at Fordow increases Iran’s capacity for producing research reactor-grade fuel and shortens the timetable for producing nuclear weapons fuel.  

The IAEA report underscores Iran’s continued non-compliance with the IAEA in other areas, including over its refusal to grant the agency access to the Parchin Military Complex, linked to weaponization-related experiments, which Iran has sanitized in recent months. It concludes that the IAEA’s ability to conduct any potential inspection there has been “significantly hampered.” It also reiterates a key conclusion from the November 2011 report: the IAEA’s information indicates that Iran conducted work relevant to the development of a nuclear weapon after 2003 and that some of this work may be ongoing.

AEI’s Critical Threats Project will release this week an in-depth report on Iran’s enrichment capabilities, with updated estimates for the amount of time it would take Iran to produce nuclear weapons fuel.  


[1] Enriched uranium is converted from gaseous form to solid metal for use in a nuclear weapon device. The uranium gas quantities provided by the IAEA have been converted here into elemental (solid) amounts. One kilogram of uranium hexafluoride gas is equivalent to approximately 0.67 kilograms of solid uranium.