Iran Hits Uranium Enrichment Milestone, But Production Growth Slows

(Feb. 19) -Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad examines his country’s uranium enrichment centrifuges last April (Getty Images).
(Feb. 19) -Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad examines his country’s uranium enrichment centrifuges last April (Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- Iran has produced more than 1 metric ton of low-enriched uranium, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported today, potentially fueling international fears that the nation has enough material to quickly produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb (see GSN, Jan. 28).

A report from agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei disclosed that Iran had badly underestimated previous assessments of how much low-enriched material it had produced. In November, the agency reported that Iran had estimated producing 635 kilograms, but actual measurements later revealed that 839 kilograms had been made. Combining that with an estimated 171 kilograms produced since then means Tehran has manufactured 1,010 kilograms of low-enriched uranium as of Jan. 31, the report says.

Iran has continued to expand its enrichment capacity, the report says, disclosing that about 4,000 centrifuges were operating in "cascades" at the nation's Natanz facility and that almost another 1,500 have been installed and are nearly ready for processing. The number of operating machines, however, has only grown slightly since ElBaradei's previous report in November.

A senior U.N. official sought today to play down the importance of the Iranian miscalculation, blaming it on Tehran's inexperience at high-volume uranium operations.

"What entered into the cascades was really well explained by Iran. Where they made a mistake is how then that material that enters the facility was split [into higher and lower enriched materials]. They use a formula to do so which obviously has some errors associated with it," the official said.

The poor estimation did not raise any risk that Iran has tried to secretly move some uranium from under IAEA noses, the official added.

"We are sure that didn’t lead to any diversion of nuclear material because everything remains under seal. That is absolutely no problem," said the official.

ElBaradei, however, raised other issues by repeating persistent concerns that Iran has hampered the agency's investigation into the nation's possible weapons research.

"Regrettably, as a result of the continued lack of cooperation by Iran in connection with the remaining issues which give rise to concerns about possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program, the agency has not made any substantive progress on these issues," the report says.

Some media reports last year argued that Iran had achieved a "breakout capability" by enriching enough material, then believed to be 635 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, to contain one bomb's worth of the uranium 235 isotope.

Today, the senior official sought to ease those concerns, saying that technical constraints and equipment inefficiencies would prevent Iran from further refining the low-enriched uranium into an adequate supply of weapon-grade material.

“Theoretically, if you count how many uranium 235 atoms there are in 1,000 kilograms of LEU, you will have enough uranium 235 atoms for a significant quantity of [highly enriched uranium]. So in theory, this is possible," the officials said, but, "if they use [Natanz], they are not there yet."

February 19, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- Iran has produced more than 1 metric ton of low-enriched uranium, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported today, potentially fueling international fears that the nation has enough material to quickly produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb (see GSN, Jan. 28).

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