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Iran: How Advanced Really Is Iran’s Nuclear Program?

(RFE/RL) The international community is pressing Iran to give up uranium enrichment – a technology that can produce fuel for peaceful nuclear reactors or, at high levels of enrichment, material for nuclear weapons. Central to the international community’s position is the belief that Iran has not made great progress in mastering this difficult technology. But Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced on May 24 that “Iran possesses, from [start to finish], the nuclear-fuel cycle for peaceful uses” -- in other words, that it is now pointless to try to stop Tehran from acquiring skills it already has. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknegal spoke with nuclear expert Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden.

RFE/RL: There seem to be conflicting reports from international experts and the Iranian government regarding just how much progress Iranian engineers have made in mastering uranium enrichment. What is your opinion?

Shannon Kile: It appears that the enriched uranium that Iran produced and that was trumpeted by Ahmadinejad a few weeks ago was actually made from Chinese-supplied uranium hexafluoride. So I think the preponderance of evidence suggests that Iran is still probably having a lot of technical problems, and they're a long way away from having mastered the complete nuclear-fuel cycle as was claimed.

RFE/RL: One of the challenging stages of mastering this technology is, as you mentioned, domestically producing uranium hexaflouride. That is the precursor gas that must be spun at high speeds in centrifuge cascades to produce enriched uranium. How well is Iran doing in producing its own uranium hexaflouride, as opposed to working with an apparently limited amount of material from the outside?

Iran does not have sufficiently large reserves of natural uranium. It would have to import it from the outside. So, when the Iranians talk about having an indigenous, independent nuclear-fuel-cycle capability, one really has to question that.

Kile: In terms of the uranium-conversion process, they still seem to be having trouble producing uranium hexafluoride, and they are having trouble making that of a sufficient purity that they can run [it] in their machines.

RFE/RL: And how well are they doing in constructing their own centrifuge cascades?

Kile: My understanding is they're having a lot of trouble getting the cascades to operate, to get the machines to run together. The ones that they have gotten to operate have operated at a very low level of efficiency. This is technically quite difficult to master. It's not something that you can simply do overnight. But the Iranians do seem to be having more than the usual start-up problems.

RFE/RL: Iran initially conducted much of its uranium-enrichment program secretly at a facility in Natanz, south of Tehran. The international community learned of that facility in 2002 and today the Iranian government says it is the peaceful centerpiece of its plans to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for its planned nuclear energy reactors. What will the Natanz facility ultimately look like?

Kile: [The Iranian authorities] have actually supplied the design plans to the [UN’s] International Atomic Energy Agency, as they're now required to do in fulfillment of their safeguards obligations [under international treaties]. It will be quite a large plant. There will be about 50,000 centrifuges and how much enriched uranium that can produce [is] hard to say because the efficiency of the centrifuges is not really known yet. But it would clearly be enough to be able to produce enough [highly enriched uranium] for a nuclear weapon in fairly short order, if that's the route that they chose to go.

RFE/RL: Iran has announced plans for a commercial nuclear-energy program that calls for multiple reactors generating up to 20,000 megawatts of electricity. Would the Natanz facility be able to produce enough uranium fuel for such a program? Or, as some Western experts say, are there inconsistencies in Iran’s plan that continue to raise doubts about just what purpose Natanz serves?

Kile: The fuel facility at Natanz, the enrichment facility, would not be anywhere close to being able to supply enough fuel for a program that large. It could supply enough basically for [the current nuclear-reactor plant that Iran is building to generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity near] Bushehr. [Also], Iran does not have sufficiently large reserves of natural uranium. It would have to import it from the outside. So, when the Iranians talk about having an indigenous, independent nuclear-fuel-cycle capability, one really has to question that. Because there simply isn't going to be enough there to be able to make enough fuel for the program that they've put forward as what they're going to actually develop.

Security Guarantees For Iran?

Security Guarantees For Iran?

Hans Blix (CTK)

SECURITY GUARANTEES On January 26, RFE/RL Radio Farda correspondent Fatemeh Aman spoke with former UN chief weapons inspector HANS BLIX about the confrontation between Iran and the international community over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Blix urged the United States to participate in direct negotiations with Tehran and to offer Iran security guarantees that are similar to those being discussed with North Korea...(more)


Listen to the complete interview (about five minutes):
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THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.