Flag for Iran Iran

Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant

  • Location
    Qom, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Base
  • Type
    Nuclear-Enrichment
  • Facility Status
    Operational as nuclear, physics and technology center under IAEA safeguards

Want to dive deeper?

Visit the Education Center

About

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 publicly 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

Glossary

Enriched uranium
Enriched uranium: Uranium with an increased concentration of the isotope U-235, relative to natural uranium. Natural uranium contains 0.7 percent U-235, whereas nuclear weapons typically require uranium enriched to very high levels (see the definitions for “highly enriched uranium” and “weapons-grade”). Nuclear power plant fuel typically uses uranium enriched to 3 to 5 percent U-235, material that is not sufficiently enriched to be used for nuclear weapons.
Centrifuge
Centrifuge: A machine used to enrich uranium by rapidly spinning a cylinder (known as a rotor and containing uranium hexafluoride gas) inside another cylinder (called the casing).
Research reactor
Research reactor: Small fission reactors designed to produce neutrons for a variety of purposes, including scientific research, training, and medical isotope production. Unlike commercial power reactors, they are not designed to generate power.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
IAEA: Founded in 1957 and based in Vienna, Austria, the IAEA is an autonomous international organization in the United Nations system. The Agency’s mandate is the promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, technical assistance in this area, and verification that nuclear materials and technology stay in peaceful use. Article III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT to accept safeguards administered by the IAEA. The IAEA consists of three principal organs: the General Conference (of member states); the Board of Governors; and the Secretariat. For additional information, see the IAEA.
Isotope
Isotope: Any two or more forms of an element having identical or very closely related chemical properties and the same atomic number (the same number of protons in their nuclei), but different atomic weights or mass numbers (a different number of neutrons in their nuclei). Uranium-238 and uranium-235 are isotopes of uranium.
Uranium
Uranium is a metal with the atomic number 92. See entries for enriched uranium, low enriched uranium, and highly enriched uranium.
Sanctions
Punitive measures, for example economic in nature, implemented in response to a state's violation of its international obligations.
Weapons-grade material
Weapons-grade material: Refers to the nuclear materials that are most suitable for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, e.g., uranium (U) enriched to 90 percent U-235 or plutonium (Pu) that is primarily composed of Pu-239 and contains less than 7% Pu-240. Crude nuclear weapons (i.e., improvised nuclear devices), could be fabricated from lower-grade materials.
Highly enriched uranium (HEU)
Highly enriched uranium (HEU): Refers to uranium with a concentration of more than 20% of the isotope U-235. Achieved via the process of enrichment. See entry for enriched uranium.
Low enriched uranium (LEU)
Low enriched uranium (LEU): Refers to uranium with a concentration of the isotope U-235 that is higher than that found in natural uranium but lower than 20% LEU (usually 3 to 5%). LEU is used as fuel for many nuclear reactor designs.
Isotope
Isotope: Any two or more forms of an element having identical or very closely related chemical properties and the same atomic number (the same number of protons in their nuclei), but different atomic weights or mass numbers (a different number of neutrons in their nuclei). Uranium-238 and uranium-235 are isotopes of uranium.
Centrifuge
Centrifuge: A machine used to enrich uranium by rapidly spinning a cylinder (known as a rotor and containing uranium hexafluoride gas) inside another cylinder (called the casing).

Sources

  1. Ivan Oelrich “A technical evaluation of the Fordow fuel enrichment plant,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 23 November 2009, http://thebulletin.org.
  2. “Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” U.S. Department of State, 14 July 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, 2 June 2017, www.iaea.org.
  4. Ivan Oelrich “A technical evaluation of the Fordow fuel enrichment plant,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 23 November 2009, http://thebulletin.org.
  5. 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.
  6. “Statements by President Obama, French President Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Brown on Iranian Nuclear Facility,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 25 September 2009, www.whitehouse.gov.
  7. “IAEA to Inspect Iran’s Qom Site October 25,” Reuters, 4 October 2009.
  8. James Acton, “Iran Violated International Obligations on Qom Facility,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 25 September 2009, www.carnegieendowment.org.
  9. David Sanger and William Broad, “U.S. and Allies Warn Iran over Nuclear Deception,” The New York Times, 25 September 2009.
  10. Mark Heinrich, “FACTBOX – Iran’s second nuclear enrichment plant,” Reuters (Vienna), 29 September 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, 29 September 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, 2 September 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, 16 November 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, 14 November 2013, www.iaea.org.
  15. “Joint Action Plan,” Geneva, 24 November 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, 20 July 2015, www.iaea.org.
  17. “Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” U.S. Department of State, 14 July 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, 2 June 2017, www.iaea.org.

Close

My Resources