Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant

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Last Updated: July 7, 2017
Other Name: Qom Gas Centrifuge Facility; Qum Gas Centrifuge Facility; Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant
Location: Qom, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Base
Subordinate To: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI)
Size: 1,044 centrifuges
Facility Status: Operational as nuclear, physics and technology center under IAEA safeguards

Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) is Iran's second pilot enrichment plant (the first is the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz). The site was originally a tunnel facility associated with Iran's paramilitary organization, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and is located buried in a mountain near the city of Qom. The facility is divided into two enrichment halls; each is designed to hold eight IR-1 gas centrifuge cascades with a total of approximately 3,000 centrifuges. [1] Following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, the FFEP was restructured as a research center under monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). [2] 1,044 gas centrifuges remain installed in one wing of the facility, with IR-1 cascades installed separately for stable isotope production. According to the IAEA, Iran has not used the plant for uranium enrichment since reporting began in November 2013. [3]

It remains unclear exactly when Iran decided to construct the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. Tehran claims that construction started in the second half of 2007, while the United States argues Iran began construction in 2006. [4] The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) assessed the beginning of construction as being between June 10, 2006 and June 17, 2007. [5] Tehran first publically acknowledged the facility in a September 21, 2009 letter to the IAEA after U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown revealed the site's existence to the international community in a joint statement earlier in the month. [6] The three Western leaders and IAEA director General Mohamed El-Baradei all argued that the new facility violated the Subsidiary Arrangements to Iran's Safeguards Agreement at the time. [7] Although Iran countered that it had ceased implementation of the arrangement in protest of UN sanctions in March 2007, the IAEA disputed Iran's right to unilaterally withdraw from its Subsidiary Arrangements, and never accepted Iran's 2007 decision to do so. [8]

The size of the FFEP, its secrecy, and its location on an IRGC base led analysts in the U.S. government to question the facility's true purpose, arguing that Iran intended it for the covert production of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). [9] Tehran disputed such assertions by claiming that the facility was hidden underground due to the risk of a U.S. or Israeli attack. Despite the fact that the facility is not suitable for industrial-scale production of low enriched uranium (LEU), Iranian officials initially insisted that the plant would only enrich uranium up to the 5% U-235 level required for nuclear power. [10] [11] Iran later submitted a revised Design Information Questionnaire (DIQ) in June 2011 stating that it planned to enrich uranium up to 20% U-235, and began operations in December later that year. [12] Iran agreed to give IAEA inspectors full access to the FFEP, and these inspectors verified that the facility conformed to Iranian design specifications. [13] The IAEA did not provide evidence that Iran diverted nuclear material produced at the FFEP towards military purposes, but it expressed growing concern over the possibility of other undeclared Iranian nuclear facilities like the FFEP. [14]

Partially in response to these concerns, Iran and the E3+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) concluded the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) in November 2013. As part of the wider ranging agreement, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium above 5% at the FFEP for 6 months. [15] The IAEA monitored and confirmed Iran's compliance with measures outlined in the JPA from January 2014 until the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) eventually replaced the agreement in July 2015. [16] Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to stop fuel enrichment at the FFEP for fifteen years except for limited stable isotope production, and instead to convert the facility into a scientific center. Only 1,044 IR-1 centrifuge machines were to remain in one wing of the FFEP, with the excess centrifuges and associated equipment removed and stored at Natanz under IAEA monitoring. [17] The JCPOA came into effect in October 2015. The IAEA continues to affirm Iran's compliance with the principles and timetables outlined by the agreement regarding the FFEP. [18]

Sources:
[1] Ivan Oelrich “A technical evaluation of the Fordow fuel enrichment plant,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 23, 2009, http://thebullitin.org.
[2] U.S. Department of State, “Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” July 14, 2015, www.state.gov.
[3] “Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015) ” reported by the Director General, International Atomic Energy Association, June 2, 2017, www.iaea.org.
[4] Ivan Oelrich “A technical evaluation of the Fordow fuel enrichment plant,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 23, 2009, http://thebulletin.org.
[5] Paul Brannan, "New satellite image further narrows Fordow construction start date," Institute for Science and International Security, November 18, 2009, p. 1, www.isis-online.org.
[6] The White House Office of the Press Secretary, "Statements by President Obama, French President Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Brown on Iranian Nuclear Facility," September 25, 2009, www.whitehouse.gov.
[7] "IAEA to Inspect Iran's Qom Site October 25," Reuters, October 4, 2009.
[8] James Acton, "Iran Violated International Obligations on Qom Facility," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 25, 2009, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[9] David Sanger and William Broad, "U.S. and Allies Warn Iran over Nuclear Deception," The New York Times, September 25, 2009.
[10] Mark Heinrich, "FACTBOX - Iran's second nuclear enrichment plant," Reuters (Vienna), September 29, 2009.
[11] 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, September 29, 2009, www.fas.org.
[12] “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran” reported by the Director General, International Atomic Energy Association, September 2, 2011, www.iaea.org.
[13] 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, November 16, 2009, www.iaea.org.
[14] “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran” reported by the Director General, International Atomic Energy Association, November 14, 2013, www.iaea.org.
[15] “Joint Action Plan,” Geneva, November 24, 2013, eeas.europa.eu.
16] “Status of Iran’s Nuclear Programme in relation to the Joint Plan of Action,” reported by the Director General, International Atomic Energy Association, July 20, 2015, www.iaea.org.
[17] U.S. Department of State, “Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” July 14, 2015, www.state.gov.
[18] “Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015),” reported by the Director General, International Atomic Energy Association, June 2, 2017, www.iaea.org.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.