The Natanz uranium enrichment facility is the larger of the two declared enrichment sites.
“As of 10 November 2012, Iran had fully installed 61 cascades in Production Hall A, 54 of which were declared by Iran as being fed with natural UF6. Iran had also partially installed one other cascade. Preparatory installation work had been completed for another 28 cascades, and was ongoing in relation to 54 others.” (16 Nov 2012 IAEA Report, p. 4)
Of the 144 cascades, total installed or being installed, some have 164 and others have 174 centrifuges. If all the cascades had 164, the total installed capacity would be 23,616 centrifuges. If all were 174, the total would be 25,056 centrifuges. The IAEA Report estimates “a total of about 25 000 centrifuges.” (p. 4) That number is the full capacity of Production Hall A. The IAEA was given no information on Iran’s plans for Production Hall B.
As of the last IAEA Report 8 Nov 2012, Natanz had about 9000 centrifuges installed or being installed. The number of centrifuges is being increased by more than 2.5 times to 25,000.
The ISIS Report of 8 Oct 2012 estimated breakout times for Iran based on about 9000 centrifuges at Natanz. Once the new centrifuges there are fully installed, the minimum breakout time might decrease, but not by much. About 0.5 months is still needed to set up the centrifuges to produce 60% or 90% U-235 gas, so the previous estimate of shortest breakout time, as 0.8 months — 0.5 months for set-up, plus 0.3 months for enrichment — could not get much shorter.
The main problem with that large a number of centrifuges is that Iran could task some of the Natanz cascades to make 20% U-235, so as to rapidly increase their supply of 20% U-235 for a later breakout. And perhaps they could do so between IAEA inspections, resulting in a larger stockpile of 20% U-235 than anyone would know.
The Fordow uranium enrichment facility is the larger of the two declared enrichment sites. It has a capacity of 16 cascades with 174 centrifuges in each cascade for a total of 2784 centrifuges. As of the 16 Nov 2012 IAEA Report, all 2784 centrifuges (all 16 cascades) are installed. However, only 4 of those 16 cascades have been enriching uranium. Another 4 cascades are fully ready to begin enrichment. And the remaining 8 need additional work before beginning production.
Several news stories are proclaiming that Iran is poised to “double” 20% U-235 production at Fordow. Yes, Iran could double their production within days by beginning to use the 4 additional cascades that are ready. But within a matter of weeks, they could bring the 8 additional cascades online also, so they are poised to quadruple production at Fordow.
According to the ISIS Report of 30 Aug 2012, the Fordow plant at one-fourth capacity (4 cascades totaling 696 centrifuges) produces 5 kg of 20% U-235 per month. So when operating at full capacity, the plant should produce about 20 kg of 20% U-235 per month.
The ISIS Report of 8 Oct 2012 estimated “future” breakout times for Iran, based on the Fordow facility operating at full capacity, the then-current 9000 centrifuge capacity of Natanz, and various levels of 20% U-235 in Iran’s stockpile. Of these three conditions for a nuclear breakout of less than 2 months, and potentially less than 1 month, two have now been met, and the capacity at Natanz has been increased to over 10,000 centrifuges, with another 15,000 or so being installed or prepared for installation.
The only thing that Iran needs to obtain enough weapon-grade uranium for a few small nuclear weapons is more 20% U-235 in its stockpile and, after that, about one month’s time. The minimum needed for a one month or less breakout, using both the Natanz and Fordow plants, is 240 kg of 20% U-235.
How Much 20% U-235?
This question is problematic. The total amount produced, as of early November, is 232.8 kilograms of 20% U-235 gas. That figure is 43.4 kg higher than the last IAEA Report (8 Aug 2012).
“232.8 kg (+43.4 kg since the Director General’s previous report) of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235, of which: 134.9 kg is presently in storage; 1.6 kg has been downblended; and 96.3 kg has been fed into the Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant (FPFP) for conversion to U3O8.” (p. 4)
But Iran also claims that 96.3 kg was turned into fuel plates (a solid metal oxide form). This would make the uranium very difficult to convert back to gas and then subsequently to weapon-grade uranium. The IAEA verified that the 20% U-235 gas (96.3 kg) was in the cylinder and in the machinery used to turn the gas into a solid oxide. And they verified the existence of the fuel plates composed of the uranium oxide.
But I’m convinced that Iran is willing and able to cheat on IAEA inspections, and that Iran may have obtained the fuel plates from another nation, and later removed most of the 20% U-235 gas. The most recent ISIS report took into account the possibility that Iran might remove 20% U-235 gas from the Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant (about 25 kg worth) and might use it in a breakout. The same report mentions the possibility that a third secret uranium enrichment facility might exist. If so, I suggest that gas from the Fuel Plate plant could be diverted to the third facility to initiate a covert breakout.
Even if there were no third facility, it might still be the case that most of the 96.3 kg of gas sent to the Fuel Plate plant were available for use in a breakout, due to some type of deception by Iran. If so, then Iran would be much closer than anyone realizes to obtaining enough 20% gas for a one month rush to make weapon-grade uranium.
Suppose, though, that Iran only has the 134.9 kg of 20% U-235 gas that the IAEA has verified. They would need at least 240 kg for a one month or less breakout (ISIS 8 Oct 2012). They would be short 105.1 kg of 20% gas. How quickly can they produce that much 20% uranium?
The Fordow plant, operating a 1/4 capacity produces about 5 kg/month. But all the centrifuges have been installed for full capacity. So within days or weeks, Fordow could be producing 20 kg/month. The Natanz plant has two sets of tandem cascades, which is the same as 1/4th of the operating capacity of the Fordow plant. So Natanz produces about 5 kg of 20% U-235 per month.
If Iran were to produce 25 kg of 20% U-235 per month (20 kg at Fordow plus 5 kg at Natanz), which appears to be their current (or imminent) capability, they would increase their stockpiles as follows:
11 Nov — 134.9
11 Dec — 159.9
11 Jan — 184.9
11 Feb — 209.9
11 Mar — 234.9
11 Apr — 259.9
According to the ISIS Report of 8 Oct 2012 (Iran’s Evolving Breakout Potential), Iran needs 180 kg of 20% U-235 for a 1.7 month breakout at Natanz alone, or 190 kg of 20% U-235 for a 1.4 month breakout using Natanz and Fordow, or 200 kg for a 1.3 month breakout at both facilities.
Thus Iran would be able to make a 1.7 month breakout beginning in January of 2013, or a 1.3 to 1.4 month breakout beginning in February of 2013. A 1.0 month breakout requires at least 240 kg of 20% U-235, and that point is reached by late March of 2013.
But if Iran were to move 25 kg of U-235 gas from the Fuel Plate plant into production during a breakout (as some of the ISIS scenarios consider), Iran would reach each breakout potential point one month sooner. But if Iran has 50 kg of that gas still available, the breakout potential would be reached 2 months sooner. And if Iran has 75 kg of 20% U-235 gas still available, due to some type of deception of IAEA inspectors, then each breakout point would be reached 3 months sooner.
If the U.S. and Israel are going to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, they must make a military strike on the Natanz and Fordow plants, and other suspected nuclear facilities, before any breakout point has been reached. If Iran has successfully deceived the IAEA, they may have produced more 20% U-235 than was reported and verified, and/or they may have diverted 20% U-235 gas from the Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant. And if Iran has a third secret uranium enrichment facility, the situation is even worse.
The ISIS analysis of the 16 Nov 2012 IAEA Report sheds some additional light on the possibilities for Iran’s nuclear program.
“A troubling possibility is that Iran could deploy the IR-2m in a third, possibly secret, enrichment facility. Iran claims it does not have to inform the IAEA about a new nuclear facility until it is nearly complete, and Iran has been ambiguous about whether it is building one. However, the IAEA rejects Iran’s attempt to exempt itself from the requirement to report a new nuclear facility when construction is approved and views Iran as not in conformity with its comprehensive safeguards agreement. Iran was discovered secretly building the Fordow enrichment plant in early 2009; many increasingly worry that Iran is in the process of building another secret gas centrifuge plant. It is unlikely that it would be operational but a question is whether the IR-2m may be the centrifuge of choice for such a facility.” (ISIS Report of 16 Nov 2012)
The IR-1 centrifuges are used at Fordow and Natanz. The newer IR-2m centrifuges are more efficient, and so they have 3 to 4 times the production capability per cascade. A small covert enrichment facility would need less than 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges to equal or exceed the enrichment capability of Fordow at full capacity (2,784 IR-1 centrifuges).
The possibility of a third secret enrichment facility is a serious problem because the governments of the U.S. and Israel seem to be working from the premise that Iran has only the enrichment capability reported by the IAEA. The rhetorical redline for military action against Iran has been moved, as far as we know, to the spring or summer of 2013. The elections underway in Israel (scheduled for 22 January 2013) make military action by that nation unlikely before February. And the re-elected Obama administration seems willing to act prior to that date also.
If a covert breakout is already underway at a secret facility, then Iran may succeed in obtaining nuclear weapons before the U.S. or Israel act. And that would make the world suddenly a much more dangerous place.