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Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant

Last Modified: Dec. 14, 2013
Other Name: Qom Gas Centrifuge Facility; Qum Gas Centrifuge Facility; Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant
Location: Qom, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Base [1]
Subordinate To: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI)
Size: Approximately 3,000 centrifuges
Facility Status: Operational


The Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) is Iran's second pilot enrichment plant (the first is the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz). [2] The facility is intended to hold 16 IR-1 gas centrifuge cascades with a total of approximately 3,000 centrifuges, divided into two units, and is still under construction. [3] In January 2012, in a Design Information Questionnaire (DIQ), Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the FFEP’s purpose is the production of UF6 enriched both to 5% U-235 for power reactors and 20% U-235 for research reactors. In 2011, Iran began installing centrifuges in one of the units, commencing enrichment in December of that same year. As of November 2013, Iran had produced approximately 221.4kg of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 at FFEP.

Tehran first revealed the FFEP in a 21 September 2009 letter to the IAEA. [4] However, the letter did not indicate the facility's location. A 25 September 2009 joint statement by President Barack Obama, President Nicholas Sarkozy, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown revealed the site's location as near Qom. [5] The site was originally a tunnel facility associated with Iran's paramilitary organization, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The November 2009 IAEA report stated that the Agency had obtained commercial satellite images indicating construction occurred at the site between 2002 and 2004. [6] However, it is unclear whether those activities were related to the FFEP. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) assessed that Iran began constructing the FFEP between 10 June 2006 and 17 June 2007. [7] This contradicts Tehran's claim, according to which construction began in the second half of 2007. [8]

Announcing their knowledge of the site, the three Western leaders argued that the new facility violated Iran's IAEA Safeguards Agreement (INFCIRC/214). IAEA Director General Mohamed El-Baradei also asserted that "Iran should have informed the IAEA the day they had decided to construct the facility," based on the provisions of Modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements to Iran’s Safeguards Agreement. [9] In 2003, Iran agreed to modify its Subsidiary Arrangements with the IAEA, with the modified arrangement requiring Iran to report planned nuclear facilities when a decision on construction is made, rather than 180 days before the facility is scheduled to receive nuclear material. [10] Iran countered that it had ceased implementation of the arrangement in protest of UN sanctions in March 2007, and justified its unilateral abrogation of the arrangement by claiming that its parliament, the Majlis, never ratified Modified Code 3.1. [11] However, modification of subsidiary arrangements is done by states without parliamentary ratification, which effectively negates Iran’s argument. [12] The IAEA also disputes Iran's right to unilaterally withdraw from its Subsidiary Arrangements, and has never accepted Iran's 2007 decision to do so. [13] Regardless of the validity of Iran's claim, satellite imagery and intelligence sources indicate that construction began no later than 2005, at least two years before Iran's attempted withdrawal from Modified Code 3.1. Thus, experts such as Jeffrey Lewis and James Acton argue that Iran should be considered in violation of its Safeguards Agreement. [14]

The size of the FFEP, its secrecy, and its location on an IRGC base have also led some analysts in the U.S. government to question the facility's true purpose - they argue that Iran constructed it in order to covertly produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). [15] Iran disputes such assertions and claims that the facility was hidden underground due to the risk of a U.S. or Israeli attack. [16] Iranian officials also initially insisted that the plant would only enrich uranium up to the 5% U-235 level required for nuclear power. [17] Economically, however, this makes little sense. A 3,000-centrifuge facility is not sufficient for industrial-scale production of low enriched uranium (LEU) for nuclear power reactor fuel. [18] Ivan Oelrich and Ivanka Barzashka of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) concluded that the FFEP is "neither ideal for commercial nor for military purposes..." [19] According to their assessment, it would take Iran four years to enrich natural uranium to HEU levels sufficient for one nuclear bomb. [20] ISIS analysts David Albright and Paul Brannan contested this, arguing that Iran could enrich sufficient natural uranium to HEU levels within one year. [21]
 
On 4 October 2009, Iran agreed to give IAEA inspectors full access to the FFEP. [22] On 26 and 27 October 2009, Agency inspectors verified that the facility conformed to initial design specifications provided by Iran and that no centrifuges or nuclear material had been introduced, although the FFEP was already at an advanced stage of construction. [23] In January 2012 Iran submitted a revised DIQ to the IAEA, indicating that the purpose of the FFEP is enrichment not only to 5% U-235, but also up to 20% U-235. [24]
 

According to IAEA reports, Iran began feeding UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235, produced at Natanz, into the centrifuges at the FFEP in December 2011. [26] Iran feeds the UF6 into two sets of cascades, and, as of November 2013, it has produced approximately 221.4 kg of uranium enriched up to 20% U-235. [27] As of November 2013, Iran had installed 2,976 centrifuges at the FFEP, all of them IR-1 models.

On 23 November 2013, Iran and the E3+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States) concluded the Joint Plan of Action.. In return for the easing of economic sanctions, Iran agreed a series of restrictions on its nuclear program. As part of the wider ranging agreement, Iran agreed to: only feed UF6 into 4 of FFEP’s 16 enrichment cascades, not enrich Uranium above 5% for 6 months, not install any new types of centrifuges at FFEP for 6 months, downblend half of the 20% U-235 it has produced at FFEP to 5% U-235, and allow IAEA inspectors daily access to FFEP. [28]


 
Sources:
[1] ISIS satellite imagery analysis indicates that the FFEP is 30km northeast of Qom. According to a 16 November 2009 IAEA report, the FFEP is "about" 20km north of Qom. See: Institute for Science and International Security, "New Satellite Imagery of Suspected Gas Centrifuge Site Near Qom, Iran," Institute for Science and International Security Imagery Brief, 27 September 2009, www.isis-online.org; International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 16 November 2009, www.iaea.org.
[2] David Sanger and William Broad, "U.S. and Allies Warn Iran over Nuclear Deception," The New York Times, 25 September 2009.
[3] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 23 November 2010, www.iaea.org.
[4] David Sanger and William Broad, "U.S. and Allies Warn Iran over Nuclear Deception," The New York Times, 25 September 2009.
[5] The White House Office of the Press Secretary, "Statements by President Obama, French President Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Brown on Iranian Nuclear Facility," 25 September 2009, www.whitehouse.gov.
[6] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 16 November 2009, www.iaea.org.
[7] Paul Brannan, "New satellite image further narrows Fordow construction start date," Institute for Science and International Security, 18 November 2009, p. 1, www.isis-online.org.
[8] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 16 November 2009, www.iaea.org.
[9] "IAEA to Inspect Iran's Qom Site October 25," Reuters, 4 October 2009.
[10] James Acton, "Iran Violated International Obligations on Qom Facility," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 25 September 2009, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[11] Mark Heinrich, "FACTBOX - Iran's second nuclear enrichment plant," Reuters (Vienna), 29 September 2009; Nima Gerami and James Acton, "What Else is Iran Hiding," Foreign Policy, 28 September 2009.
[12] Nima Gerami and James Acton, "What Else is Iran Hiding," Foreign Policy, 28 September 2009.
[13] James Acton, "Iran Violated International Obligations on Qom Facility," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 25 September 2009, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[14] Jeffrey Lewis, "Qom Enrichment Facility Roundup," Arms Control Wonk Blog, 28 September 2009, www.armscontrolwonk.com; James Acton, "Iran Violated International Obligations on Qom Facility," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 25 September 2009, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[15] David Sanger and William Broad, "U.S. and Allies Warn Iran over Nuclear Deception," The New York Times, 25 September 2009.
[16] Mark Heinrich, "FACTBOX - Iran's second nuclear enrichment plant," Reuters (Vienna), 29 September 2009.
[17] Mark Heinrich, "FACTBOX - Iran's second nuclear enrichment plant," Reuters (Vienna), 29 September 2009.
[18] According to FAS, in order to enrich enough LEU for one year of fuel at a standard 1,000MW reactor, a 3,000-centrifuge cascade would require 90 years of operation. See: Ivanka Barzashka, "The QOM Enrichment Facility - What and How Do We Know?" FAS Strategic Security Blog, 29 September 2009, www.fas.org.
[19] Ivan Oelrich and Ivanka Barzashka," A technical evaluation of the Fordow fuel enrichment plant," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 23 November 2009, www.bulletin.org.
[20] Ivan Oelrich and Ivanka Barzashka, "A technical evaluation of the Fordow fuel enrichment plant," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 23 November 2009, www.bulletin.org.
[21] The dispute between the analysts evolved around differing assessments of the separative power of Iran's IR-1 centrifuges. Oelrich and Barazshka calculated a separative power of 0.44 Separative Work Units (SWU) per year, based on the recent performance of the IR-1 centrifuges at the enrichment plant in Natanz. Albright and Brannan assumed an enrichment output of approximately 1.0-1.5 SWU per year, stating that Oelrich and Barzashka significantly underestimated the performance of the Natanz facility. See: David Albright and Paul Brannan, "Critique of Recent Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Article on the Fordow Enrichment Plant," Institute for Science and International Security, 30 November 2009, www.isis-online.org; Ivan Oelrich and Ivanka Barzaska, "Calculating the Capacity of Fordow," FAS Issue Brief, Federation of American Scientists, 1 December 2009; David Albright and Paul Brannan, "Further comments regarding the BAS article on Fordow," Institute for Science and International Security, 4 December 2009, www.isis-online.org.
[22] ParisaHafezi, "IAEA to inspect Iran's Qom site Oct. 25," Reuters (Tehran), 5 October 2009.
[23] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 16 November 2009, www.iaea.org.
[24] International Atomic Energy Agency, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Report by the Director General, 24 February 2012, www.iaea.org.
[25] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 16 November 2009, www.iaea.org.
[26] International Atomic Energy Agency, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Report by the Director General, 22 May 2013, www.iaea.org.
[27] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, 14 November 2013, www.iaea.org.
[28] “Joint Action Plan,” Geneva, 24 November 2013, eeas.europa.eu.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

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