Iran’s Nuclear Breakout in 2013

The 21 Feb 2013 IAEA Report on Iran’s nuclear program was an eye-opener; it was both perplexing and worrying. Here’s the IAEA Report: in a long PDF document, and here’s the ISIS analysis of that report: a shorter more readable explanation.

Iran has two known uranium enrichment facilities: Fordow and Natanz. The Fordow facility can hold 16 cascades (groups of gas centrifuges), arranged in tandems (pairs) for more efficient processing of the gas. Four cascades (2 pairs) have been operational for many months now. They produce about 11.5 kg of near-20% U-235 gas per month (up from about 10 kg/month previously). If the full facility were operational (16 cascades instead of only 4), it would produce four times the output: between 40 and 46 kg of 20% U-235 gas per month.

The Natanz facility has 2 cascades (one pair) producing 20% U-235, at a current rate of about 4 kg of 20% U-235 per month, down from 5 kg/month previously.

Currently — that is to say, in the months leading up to early Feb 2013 IAEA inspections — the combined output of both facilities is 15.5 kg of 20% U-235/month. That’s an important number, because it indicates progress toward accumulation of enough 20% gas for a nuclear breakout, a rush to make the 90% U-235 gas needed for nuclear weapons. But once Fordow is fully operational, it can produce 40 to 46 kg of U-235/month, for a combined total of 44 to 50 kg/month.

How much 20% U-235 gas is needed for a breakout? An Oct 2012 ISIS report arrives at the following values:

1.7 month breakout (180 kg)
1.4 month breakout (190 kg)
1.3 month breakout (200 kg)
1.0 month breakout (240 kg)
0.9 month breakout (250 kg)

However, the situation has changed somewhat since ISIS gave that estimate. Natanz has increased its centrifuges from about 9,000 to well over 12,000. And the Fordow facility is close to being fully operational. As of early Feb 2013, 15 of the 16 cascades at Fordow were ready for operation. If anything, the breakout times given above are shorter now; but the amount of U-235 needed is essentially the same.

As of the Feb Report, Iran had produced a total of 280 kg of near-20% U-235 gas. That value is more than enough for a breakout of less than one month. So why have the U.S. and Israel not considered Iran to have crossed the red line? It is only because Iran has claimed to have taken 111 kg of that gas and turned it into uranium oxide that is useless for making nuclear bombs. (Another 1.6 kg was down-blended to a lower enriched state.) The result is that Iran only had 167.4 kg of 20% gas as of early Feb.

There are two possibilities here.

(1) Iran took a large portion of the 20% enriched uranium and made it into uranium oxide, removing it from possible use in a nuclear weapons program, just as they claim;
(2) Iran used deception to convince the world and the IAEA that it has less 20% uranium than needed to make a nuclear bomb.

Since Iran has spent many years and billions of dollars to make that 20% U-235 gas, it is difficult to believe that they would give it up so readily. My opinion is that Iran deceived the IAEA inspectors by obtaining uranium oxide plates from China (or some other source). They then moved a large portion of that gas to a third secret facility, perhaps one with the more efficient IR-2m centrifuges.

This scenario is not so far-fetched. The internationally known and respected Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington, D.C. think-tank, has repeatedly cautioned that Iran could have such a third secret facility.

“Yet, there is another possibility. Iran could deploy advanced centrifuges at the Fordow enrichment plant or possibly at a third enrichment site. Its advanced centrifuges, principally the IR-2m and perhaps the IR-4 models, are expected to achieve about 3-4 times the enrichment output of the IR-1 centrifuges. Iran is currently testing both types in production-scale cascades at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant but making progress at a much slower rate than expected. However, with advanced centrifuges, Iran could increase by several-fold its production of 19.75 percent LEU and it could break out with far fewer (less than 1,000) machines. For this reason, any deployment of advanced centrifuges will inevitably increase tensions.” (8 Oct 2012 ISIS report, p. 21)

Now, several months after the above-quoted ISIS report, according to the 21 Feb 2013 IAEA Report, Iran has begun to deploy advanced centrifuges at its Natanz facility. Since this type of centrifuge is ready to deploy, they could be used at an unknown third location also.

Such a scenario explains why Iran would want to feign turning U-235 gas into metal oxide — as a pretext for moving the gas to a secret facility. The 111 kg of gas that may have been moved is sufficient for one low-yield nuke, once it is purified to 90% and made into 90% pure uranium metal (not the oxide form). Iran will prefer to make lower-yield nukes because it allows them to have more nuclear weapons. If they made one large-yield bomb, its use would turn them from a nuclear weapons power to a powerless target for retaliation. They need several nukes before they can use them, or reveal that they have them.

Now some commentators think that Iran is converting 20% U-235 gas to the oxide form as a way to keep away from the red line of enough gas for a breakout. They keep their stockpile below 180 kg, the lowest needed for a breakout, so as to reduce the likelihood that the U.S. or Israel will attack.

But there is a problem with that assessment. Iran was estimated to have 167.4 kg of near-20% gas in early February. But they continue to accumulate 20% gas at a rate of 15.5 kg per month:

early Feb 167.4 kg
early Mar 182.9 kg
early Apr 198.4 kg
early May 213.9 kg

Therefore, 1.7 month breakout point, 180 kg, has been reached. And Iran may already have enough 20% U-235 gas for a 1.4 month breakout: 190 kg. Then too, if Iran suddenly starts using all cascades at Fordow, the numbers go up sharply (44 to 50 kg/month at both facilities).

167.4 kg (early Feb)
182.9 kg (early Mar)
Fordow fully operational by early March
226.9 kg (early Apr)
270.9 kg (early May)


167.4 kg (early Feb)
182.9 kg (early Mar)
198.4 kg (early Apr)
Fordow fully operational by early April
242.4 kg (early May)

The value of 240 kg represents a one month breakout potential. However, with the addition of thousands of centrifuges at Natanz since Oct 2012, the 240 value might be sufficient for a less than one month breakout. But only a value of 180 to 190 kg is needed for a breakout of less than two months. Iran has already passed the point of being able to breakout in less than 2 months. Eventually, as ISIS has warned, the breakout potential may fall to one or two weeks. Iran could breakout by making some excuses to delay inspections for a brief time.

The next IAEA report on Iran is due out in May. Talks with Iran are going nowhere. There are no indications that Iran is going to give up its enrichment of uranium. The recent addition of thousands of new centrifuges at Natanz, the progress toward installing all 2700 plus centrifuges at Fordow, and the installation of a set of advanced IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz all indicate that Iran is ramping up its nuclear program. Iran has enough 20% uranium gas for a breakout. The red line has already been crossed, and both Israel and the U.S. failed to act.

Even without a third secret facility, Iran could have nuclear bombs within a few months. With such a facility, they may already have one bomb, or they are close.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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