Iran Also Converts 20-Percent Uranium into Reactor Metal – Easing Concerns over Nuclear Weapon Program
The Washington Post reports that Iran recently sought to acquire tens of thousands of highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines. The experts and diplomats told the Post that the attempted purchase was “a sign that Iran may be planning a major expansion of its nuclear program that could shorten the path to an atomic weapons capability.” (The Washington Post, 14 February)
The report says Iranian agents attempted to buy 100,000 of the ring-shaped magnets — which are banned from export to Iran under U.N. resolutions — from China about a year ago. It is unclear whether the attempt succeeded. This particular attempt to purchase banned items from foreign vendors is significant, the Post says, because of it’s the purchase order’s specificity and sheer size, enough magnets in theory to outfit 50,000 new centrifuges. Iran is believed to have some 14,000 centrifuges now.
The Washington Post report coincides with Iran’s announcement this week that it will install new generation of centrifuges at Natanz uranium enrichment unit. The new IR2M will be 3-6 times faster that the existing IR1 machines. Their exact efficiency of the new model depends on a number of factors including the quality of the raw material. The installation of the IR2M centrifuges could double the current capacity at Natanz.
“They are positioning themselves to make a lot of nuclear progress quickly,” a European diplomat was quoted by the Washington Post as saying. “Each step forward makes the situation potentially more dangerous.”
Olli Heinonen who led the IAEA nuclear inspections inside Iran before his retirement in 2010, has told the Post that the type of magnet sought by Iran was highly specific to the IR-1 centrifuge.
“The numbers in the order make sense, because Iran originally told us it wanted to build more than 50,000 of the IR-1s,” Heinonen said. “The failure rate on these machines is 10 percent a year, so you need a surplus.” (The Washington Post, 14 February)
Meanwhile, Iran has announced, and the IAEA inspectors have confirmed, that it has converted parts of its 20-percent enriched uranium stockpile into a metal used in reactors that is not used in production of nuclear weapons.
The Post says a new IAEA report would document Iran’s seemingly contradictory moves, portraying the country as carefully avoiding behavior indicating work on nuclear weapons, and at the same time quietly preparing to increase production at its two uranium-enrichment plants.