Iran’s enrichment must be severely limited

The stark reality is that the amount of enrichment work needed to make a single annual fuel reload for a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power reactor will also be enough to produce some 40 nuclear bombs.

Iran's heavy-water production plant in Arak, southwest of Tehran. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran's heavy-water production plant in Arak, southwest of Tehran.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani declared to a crowd in Khuzestan Province just before the January 20 historic signing of the interim nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, Britain, Russia, China and Germany): “Do you know what the Geneva agreement means? It means the big powers have surrendered before the Great Iranian nation.”  Last week in Davos, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif once again underscored this view: “We did not agree to dismantle anything.”
Tehran’s “victory”? Perhaps. In the interim deal worked out in Geneva, Iran is not allowed to operate additional enrichment centrifuges, but it is permitted to continue enriching uranium to less than 5 percent. It might seem that Iran was given tacit recognition by the international community for its “right” to enrich uranium, which it claims under the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but whether this is so will be worked out in the long-term agreement to be negotiated with Iran starting next week.

Exercising this “right,” in practical terms, would mean allowing Iran to produce all the 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium needed to fuel its 1,000-megawatt civilian nuclear power reactor at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, once the present contract with Russia for the fuel expires.
This is not likely to happen. A good measure of what is involved is the amount of enrichment “work” done by the spinning centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz fuel enrichment plant to produce an annual fuel reload for a 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor.
The stark reality is that the amount of enrichment work needed to make a single annual fuel reload for a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power reactor will also be enough to produce some 40 nuclear bombs -- starting from 3.5 percent uranium and enriching it to 90 percent bomb grade.
This equation between the annual fuel requirement of a civilian nuclear power reactor and 40 bombs worth of 90 percent enriched uranium indicates the distance to be covered in the next six months of negotiations to a final agreement. To assure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear bomb, even with enhanced monitoring, the “breakout” time for removing low-enriched uranium from a safeguarded stockpile and further enriching it to one “significant quantity” needs to be kept to a year or longer. A “significant quantity,” in the parlance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is 25 kilograms of 90 percent enriched uranium, enough to manufacture a nuclear bomb.
Thus requiring a breakout time of a year or longer would mean that Iran could produce only a small quantity of the fuel that a power reactor would need annually. Iran would be limited for an extended period of time to operating 3,000 centrifuges of the currently used IR-1 type or proportionally fewer higher efficiency machines – not the 15,000 now installed at the Natanz enrichment plant and nothing close to the 50,000 planned there.
While serious concern remains over the possibility of breakout, Iran must be prepared to accept severe limitations for an extended period of time on its in-house production of enriched uranium for its nuclear power reactors.
Speaking of the Geneva deal’s chance of success at the Brookings’ Saban Forum, US President Barack Obama last month noted, “I wouldn’t say that it’s more than 50-50.” To be sure, the President’s “balance sheet” is based on Tehran’s sponsorship of terrorism and its intensive involvement in support of Assad’s regime in Syria, which may inevitably persuade Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia to begin to develop their own nuclear capabilities. Moreover, legislation now threatened by Congress to increase sanctions on Iran would end the Geneva negotiations and any hope of a final agreement.
In sum, whatever Iran’s conception of its “right” to enrich, a final meaningful agreement would permit achieving it only in a very limited sense with a very limited number of operating centrifuges to clearly preclude the possibility of breakout to a bomb.  
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Yonah Alexander is the Director of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies (Washington, DC) and Milton Hoenig is a consulting scientist. They co-authored the book The New Iranian Leadership: Ahmadinejad, Terrorism, Nuclear Ambition, and the Middle East (Praeger Security International, 2007).