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Yesterday the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a hearing on nuclear diplomacy with Iran. Speakers made several references to South Africa’s nuclear past and what it means for the six powers trying to negotiate a verification agreement with the Islamic Republic.

The IAEA and South Africa twenty years ago successfully resolved questions about South Africa’s former nuclear weapons activities. That record is resonating now among critics of the Iran/P5+1 process because Iran is currently challenging the IAEA’s authority to do the kind of verification the powers want to see included in a comprehensive agreement. But Iran won’t and can’t follow South Africa’s example without a fundamental rebooting of its relationship with the IAEA.

South Africa swung toward exceptional cooperation with the IAEA at a time when its strategic threat perception was changing and it was facing near-certain regime change. I suspect at least some of the critics who see South Africa as a model for Iran understand that and will draw their own conclusions. Neocons among them should be aware that the pressure which drove white supremacists to give up nuclear weapons was generated inside the country, not outside.

South Africa: The Record

Beginning in the 1970s, South Africa’s Apartheid regime, facing growing international isolation and conflict on its periphery, set up a secret program to develop and make nuclear weapons. By 1989 it produced six of these. In November 1989 it ordered the program terminated and by July 1991 South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons. That same month it joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and negotiated a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) which entered into force two months later. Only then did the IAEA obtain access to what was left of that program including, most importantly, the highly-enriched uranium used in the weapons. In less than two years, the IAEA had more or less accounted for all of South Africa’s declared nuclear materials. During this process involving about 150 inspections, the South African government never acknowledged or otherwise made known that it had secretly made nuclear weapons; the IAEA concerned itself with verifying the correctness and completeness of South Africa’s nuclear material inventory. The IAEA did not focus upon allegations of the kind of nuclear weapons activities which today suggest to the IAEA  ”possible military dimensions” (PMD) in Iran’s nuclear program.

In March 1993, South Africa declared that it had in the past made nuclear weapons. The IAEA then, also on the basis of extensive cooperation from South Africa, verified that all the nuclear material in the weapons program was accounted for and under safeguards, and that the nuclear weapons program was terminated.

The IAEA is confident that essential nuclear material-related activities in the nuclear weapons program are accounted for. It investigated PMD-type activities to the extent they were deemed critical to assure that at some future time South Africa would not re-constitute this program. It closed the books on this exercise in 2010.

No Change? No Cooperation

Some advocates of a robust verification arrangement for Iran under a comprehensive nuclear agreement now argue that South Africa’s extensive cooperation should be the standard for how Iran proceeds with the IAEA.

What was said on July 29 about South Africa by SFRC Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and by ex-IAEA safeguards director Olli Heinonen echoed a cyberspace exchange I had a few days before, in which Senator Menendez and also Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) were linked in. On Twitter last week, Robert Zarate, a former Congressional staffer now here, put it this way to me: “S Africa decided 2 ‘come clean’ on nuke prog’s military dimensions. It’s the baseline 4 Iran.” Senator Kirk described what South Africa permitted the IAEA to do as “anywhere, anytime” inspections and he posted on Twitter a simple chart which checked boxes identifying South Africa as a poster child of transparency and Iran as a non-cooperator.

At the SFRC hearing a week later, a critical moment came when Menendez asked Heinonen “ Is a good model the South African model” which featured “unprecedented cooperation by allowing anywhere, anytime inspections?” Heinonen replied by qualifying that that approach “was successful [in South Africa because] that government had changed their view. They had given up their nuclear weapons program. They wanted to close that chapter.” But “if that change doesn’t take place in Iran,” he said, then effective verification is “going to be difficult as it was in North Korea” where the IAEA had extremely limited access under the 1994 Agreed Framework. Menendez concluded that the two cases were “very different… the two paradigms here, between where Iran is at and where South Africa is at.”

What are the Drivers?

What Heinonen didn’t say about South Africa’s re-evaluation of nuclear weapons is what others on the ground in South Africa have told me over the years that have elapsed since 1993–that the Apartheid state’s decisions from 1989 through 1993 to terminate the secret program and destroy its infrstructure were based upon a strategic calculation. That calculation ultimately expected that a black majority would in the near future take power, spearheaded by an African National Congress that ruling white supremacists did not want to see inherit a nuclear weapons arsenal or capability.

This version of events is decidedly not the official view of the ANC today, and since taking power it has formally embraced policies clearly in favor of disarmament and nonproliferation. But South African observers and witnesses then and now, white and black, have recalled to me again and again that at the end of the 1980s, the writing was on the wall.  A process of internally-generated regime change in South Africa was a major driver of that country’s cooperation with the IAEA.

So Senator Kirk’s cyberspace broadside–that because transparency in South Africa was “good enough for Mandela” it should be “good enough for Iran”–won’t hold true so long as drivers for political change, such as those which made the difference in South Africa in the early 1990s, are not at work in Iran today. So long as the organizations and personalities who are determined to expand Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities are confident that they are invulnerable and enjoy the support of the leadership, it would not be wise to count upon Iran suddenly shifting gears and fully cooperating with the IAEA.

On June 14, six months after Iran and the six powers concluded the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) setting up a roadmap for negotiation of a comprehensive agreement, Iran instead fundamentally challenged the IAEA’s authority to pursue PMD-related investigations, telling the IAEA in an official communication (Infcirc/866) that:

  • the IAEA is not authorized to make requests for access based on United Nations Security Council or IAEA Board of Governors resolutions which are “politically motivated, illegal, and unjust”, and that
  • the IAEA is not authorized or required to verify the completeness and correctness of states’ nuclear inventory declarations.



Regardless of the November 2013 Framework for Cooperation touted as the beginning of a reset in Iran’s relationship with the IAEA hand in hand with the conclusion of the JPOA, Iran’s positions concerning the IAEA’s verification mandate haven’t changed since 2005. The IAEA’s authority to pursue what the JPOA calls “past issues” in Iran however critically rests on those resolutions and upon support and endorsement by member states of its work including to assure that Iran’s declarations are complete and correct. In South Africa, verification of completeness and correctness was an essential component of the IAEA’s work to resolve questions about that country’s nuclear program–even before South Africa revealed that it had secretly made nuclear arms.

 
 

Underground at Anhalter Bahnhof and waiting for the S2 train a couple of mornings ago,  a reporter rang me up to talk about Iran.

He had read this piece written a few days before, in which I had run down why the Russians had become increasingly perturbed in recent months about Iran’s claim that it needed to enrich and fabricate fuel for its Bushehr-1 reactor. Based on what Russian sources have told me since November, I’m nearly certain that vendor Rosatom has no real desire to permit Iran to make this fuel anytime soon, regardless of my encouragement back in the beginning of 2013 that Russia and other powers negotiating with Iran seriously think about that long-term option.

The journalist, Jonathan Tirone of Bloomberg, roped me into a discussion (by this time I was coasting on the S-Bahn through Berlin-Zehlendorf) about whether Iran, in lieu of fabricating fuel for Bushehr, could scratch its itch by enriching some uranium and shipping it off to Russia to be fabricated into fuel for the reactor.

That conversation contributed to this story which Tirone’s editors sent out on the wire later the same day. Going beyond the point that everyone and his uncle had noticed the day before–that the Iranians were openly using separative work units (SWU) instead of the number of centrifuges as a benchmark in framing their “practical needs” to enrich uranium–the piece established that, in principle, a gambit could be thought up permitting Iran to enrich some fuel for its power reactors, as I had suggested 18 months ago.

Thinking along those lines, and going beyond what made it into print in the wire article, the powers and Iran, were they so inclined, could agree to something like this:

  • Iran could use a specified and limited number of centrifuges (or instead installed centrifuge capacity expressed in SWU/year) to produce enriched uranium product (EUP) which would be shipped to Russian fuel fabricator TVEL to make a limited amount of fabricated fuel for the reactor at Bushehr.
  • Iran might initially be permitted to enrich up to about 10,000 SWU/y (roughly consistent with the number of centrifuges Iran is currently operating), and gradually increase this amount.
  • The agreement would expressly allow the enrichment for the purpose of producing a specific amount of EUP dedicated to fueling specific reactors in Iran only.
  • Since a Russo-Iran understanding from 1992 calls for Russia to supply the fuel for Bushehr for the entire operating lifetime of the reactor, going this route would penalize Russian industry. So Iran and the powers would have to work out a deal to compensate Russian industry for the revenue it would forfeit in permitting Iran to enrich the uranium.
  • This arrangement would obtain for as long as the comprehensive agreement between the EU3+3 and Iran remained in force. Thereafter Iran would be free to tailor its nuclear fuel production infrastructure to meet its “practical needs” by a combination of domestic activities and reliance on the world market.
  • With that end in sight, the powers and especially Russia could in coming years negotiate with Iran a longer-term cooperative arrangement underpinned by political incentives (not necessarily limited to nuclear energy) that would encourage Iran to rely on outside sources for fuel and enrichment services for most of what it needs after the “final step” expires.
  • How much centrifuge capacity Iran would be permitted under the comprehensive agreement to produce EUP for its reactor (or reactors, should enrichment for the IR-40 unit be included in such a deal) would depend on the extent to which Iran satisfies the EU3+3 on issues it believes essential.
  • Accordingly, the longer the term of a comprehensive agreement, and the more Iran cooperates with the IAEA in answering PMD-related questions, addresses concerns about the IR-40, and permits access and verification beyond what’s in Iran’s Additional Protocol (AP-plus measures would be developed in part from what the IAEA learned from Iran about its nuclear weapons-related capabilities), the more centrifuges Iran would be permitted to produce the EUP it needs.

 

If, as we have heard, the negotiation between EU+3 and Iran is getting hung up over the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate, the above approach might overcome that impasse, especially if Iran accommodates the powers on other significant matters as I suggest above, and Russian industry is compensated.

Breakout is the Bottom Line

But every plan which has been advocated so far to deal with Iran’s demand for “enrichment equity” has come with its own potential risks and perceived downsides.

My boss George Perkovich, for example, last week dusted off the proposal that, instead of allowing Iran to enrich uranium for Bushehr or fabricate the fuel in Iran, Russia should fabricate several years’ requirements for fresh fuel for Bushehr which could be stored in Iran. That’s a good idea. But it, as well as a separate plan put forth by colleagues at Princeton, would also encourage Iran to transition to far more powerful centrifuges.

At least until recently, some people looking in at the EU3+3 group, thinking about the future of Iran’s centrifuge R&D program, aimed to blunt development of more advanced centrifuges by Iran, at least for as long as the comprehensive agreement with Iran would be in force. They were not comfortable with a deal that would suspend for a limited time uranium enrichment by Iran but allowed Iran without restraint to develop centrifuges capable of producing significant quantities of weapons-grade uranium far more quickly than P-1s and which–as soon as the comprehensive agreement expired–could be set up in more compact and more easily-hidden cascades. (Question: Would the EU3+3 also inform NSG members they may permit export to Iran of the carbon fiber and other nuclear and dual-use items it needs for advanced centrifuges? You may bet that Iran will request this courtesy.) The counterargument is that ultimately, after the expiration of the comprehensive agreement, nothing can prevent Iran from revving up its centrifuge R&D effort, and that, from the point of view of verification, it won’t matter to the IAEA how capable Iran’s centrifuges are.

The alternative approach I put forth above presents completely different problems.

Using recent long-term enrichment contracts as a benchmark, the cost of compensating Russian industry (in fact, Tenex) for foregone enrichment business in Iran during the term of the comprehensive agreement might be something like $14 million per year if Iran were eventually to enrich enough uranium for one reload per year. That’s peanuts compared to the $20-billion barter deal which Iran and Russia have reportedly put together, or an equivalent-priced arrangement for four new VVER power plants not yet finalized.

The deal I outline above puts Russia onto a slippery slope, however, as it could be expected that, once Russia honors Iran’s demand to enrich uranium for a portion of the Bushehr fuel, Iran would squeeze Russia to permit Iran to enrich all the fuel needed for Bushehr and any new reactors. If Iran and Russia eventually conclude the sale of four more VVER power plants, if we assume an operating regime based on quarter-core reloads, these plus Bushehr-1 (beyond the first cores) would annually require about 500,000 SWU/y–the equivalent of perhaps 700,000 P1 centrifuges or about 20,000 advanced machines if Iran’s throughput estimate of 24 SWU/machine/y is credible. At that point we’re talking serious money for Russian industry:  If Iran enriches all the uranium needed for these reactors, the Russians would forfeit maybe $70-million per year in revenue from performing enrichment services under long-term contracts with Iran.

But at the end of the day, and for better or worse, any plan permitting Iran to enrich its own power reactor fuel anytime soon runs aground on the formidable iceberg of the Joint Plan of Action’s breakout logic–developed in part to come up with hard numbers to persuade critics of diplomacy in Israel and the U.S. Congress that the JPOA right from the outset would turn back Iran’s clock to dash to a bomb.

The western powers–and until now Russia has been in agreement with them–don’t want to see Iran justifying more enrichment by producing power reactor fuel–period. According to Bob Einhorn, who has transmitted quite a bit of U.S. government thinking about the negotiations into the public space, Iranian demands for “an enrichment capacity greater than a few thousand first-generation centrifuges would give Iran an unacceptably rapid breakout capability” and therefore be a “show-stopper.”

 
 

Transparency is an elusive commodity in international nuclear affairs. Routinely cited as a universal virtue and not without a certain sanctimoniousness, this aspiration is sacrificed time and time again on the altar of political expediency.

Transparency doesn’t factor into the IAEA’s routine work in Iran, which is mostly about monitoring and verifying the accounting of declared materials and activities. Instead, it’s a battleground in the IAEA’s efforts to arrive at a holistic picture of Iran’s nuclear history, including things that Iran, so far, has not seen fit to declare. That includes what the IAEA calls “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program.

In this context, the use of the T-Word has been breathtaking. As pressure gradually builds toward the July 20 expiration date of the Joint Plan of Action’s “first step,” we have been told variously that there is a transparency deficit in Iran, that more transparency is on the way, that Iran is being more transparent in its relationship with the IAEA, and, conversely, that it isn’t.

There is also the separate but related issue of how transparent should be the process by which the IAEA, the powers, and ultimately the Board of Governors conclude that enough is known about Iran’s past and perhaps current activities to warrant lifting sanctions and returning to routine verification.

Complete transparency would imply that the roles of the IAEA and the powers would be absolutely separate:  The IAEA and Iran would confer in a different box from Iran’s negotiations with the powers, along the lines of the Framework for Cooperation which Iran and the IAEA concluded last November just before the powers and Iran followed up with the JPOA. When both tracks are finished the IAEA Secretariat, fully autonomously, would inform the Board of Governors about what it knows.

The real world is not so cut-and-dried. It might be useful to think of the state of play like a Venn diagram where the circles represent the interests and views of individual member states (including Iran and each of the six powers) plus the IAEA Secretariat; decisions emerge in the space where these sets intersect (that’s the area abc in the picture above right) . Left to itself, that space might be quite opaque.

On paper, decisions might happen either in the IAEA General Conference, where all 162 member states convene, or in the 35-member Board of Governors. In fact, no significant decision in the Iran crisis has ever been taken at a General Conference, and the Board is too big, too indiscreet, too prone to division, and meets too infrequently to serve as the locus for sensitive discussions about Iran’s ongoing relationship with the IAEA as negotiations continue. Instead something like an iterative process takes place in bilateral meetings between the Secretariat and key member states and in small colloquia involving the six powers, Iran, and the IAEA. U.S. negotiators have acknowledged that the powers have been getting briefed by the IAEA on its progress with Iran on a monthly basis. It would be fair to assume that this discussion in fact takes place in something closer to real time.

It would certainly be a mistake to conclude, based on the pains taken in some quarters to underline that the Iran-powers track and the Iran-IAEA track are separate, that the IAEA and the powers will wait until the end of the negotiation of the “final step” to find out whether Iran is disclosing to the IAEA what the IAEA needs to know

It is in that light that we should consider this item published a few days ago by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a mini-think tank which has no track record of having a strong interest in the details of how the IAEA, Iran, and the powers are handling PMD.

FPRI stops just short of asserting that the U.S. has pressed the IAEA to accept what it calls “limited disclosure” of PMD activities to facilitate making a deal with Iran. It documents that, since negotiations with Iran have accelerated after the election of President Hassan Rouhani, personalities involved in how the powers frame the PMD issue have departed from the view that Iran must “come clean” or “confess” that it had a nuclear weapons program. The author, Gary Gambill, pits in this debate David Albright and Bruno Tertrais, Gary Samore, and Emily Landau, Shimon Stein, and Ephraim Asculai against Jon Wolfsthal, Jofi Joseph, and Bob Einhorn.

Wendy Sherman, now negotiating with Iran on behalf of the U.S. State Department, is singled out by Gambill for having told Congress in 2011 that the U.S. “rallied the P5+1 to co-sponsor” an IAEA Board of Governors resolution “urging Iran to come clean about PMD,” while, in February 2014, she was vague about how the PMD issue would be put to rest.

Over the last half-year, I have asked officials from countries negotiating with Iran about the apparent shift on this issue. There are long answers (some of which are couched in legalese about what people think the IAEA’s legal mandate is and isn’t) but the exceedingly short answer is something like “That was then, and this is now,” because in 2014 Iran is at the table and in 2011 it wasn’t.

That brings us full circle to the T-Word. If the powers, the IAEA, and Iran all agree at the end of the day that they aim to retire the PMD conundrum, what will they say and on what basis will they decide? One conclusion by FPRI’s author might suggest that they will want to disclose as little as possible: “Insisting on full transparency may well jeopardize the progress of the negotiations.”

 

 
 

On September 18, 1990, long-held suspicions about Brazil’s nuclear intentions seemed to be officially and dramatically confirmed. Brazil’s first popularly elected President in 29 years, Fernando Collor, on the scene of what his aides suggested was a nuclear test site, terminated a covert nuclear weapons project which had been steered by the military. The New York Times reported it out from Brazil:

In a first step to dismantle the bomb project, Mr. Collor flew photographers and officials to a previously off-limits air base in the Cachimbo mountain range of remote central Amazon. As the heads of the three military services watched – looking ill at ease in the photographs – the President threw a symbolic shovelful of cement into a hole four feet in diameter and 1,050 feet deep.

I read this article the day after it appeared in print, and its conclusion–neatly summarized by the International Herald Tribune‘s front-page headline: “Brazil Uncovers Plan by Military to Build Atomic Bomb and Stops It”–has been with me and has probably subconsciously influenced my thinking about Brazil’s nuclear program for nearly a quarter-century.

Last month, my colleague Togzhan Kassenova published this account of Brazil’s nuclear program. Her introduction included these remarks about frequently encountered narratives that try to explain what Brazil was doing in the nuclear energy field:

“Brazilian” voices are less heard, outside of official statements, are are quite different from the external observers. Whereas the commonly accepted external view is that Brazil pursued a nuclear-weapons program, Brazilian political, technical, and intellectual elites still debate whether the country undertook such an effort.

Many people living in the northern hemisphere might be surprised to learn that Brazilians don’t agree about what we had been told decades ago was an open and shut case: that Brazil had a secret nuclear weapons program, and that a charismatic, vigorous, and democratically-empowered leader shut that program down. What was there to disagree about? After all, the Brazilian government itself exposed the project to the world. Weren’t those holes at Cachimbo all the proof that Brazilians required to conclude that their country was secretly working on nuclear weapons and, further, that the masterminds were probably far enough along to begin preparations for a nuclear test?

Collor’s photo-op at Cachimbo is just one detail in a long cat-and-mouse history of Brazilian nuclear activities. But prompted by Togzhan’s passage about the importance of nuclear narratives, I decided to look into that detail and see for myself if what the New York Times was told then matched what Brazilians conclude about this matter today.

I found some “Brazilian voices” which were in and around the nuclear program when these events began unfolding after Collor won a run-off presidential vote at the end of 1989. What they relate significantly qualified the picture at Cachimbo which in 1990 seized the imagination of the outside world and which has lingered in our collective memory.

What Collor Knew

In September 1990, government officials told reporters that military officers shocked the President by disclosing a clandestine nuclear project, and after a stormy confrontation, Collor flew into Cachimbo with a bevy of top officials and reporters and filled up one of two bore holes (one participant last week told me there were in fact three holes) with cement (I was told instead that he used lime).

Last week I was also reminded by Brazilian sources that in 1990 the holes at Cachimbo had already been known to the Brazilian public and parliament for four years, after local media reported that the Air Force beginning in 1981 had systematically studied the terrain’s geology and hydrology and then drilled shafts meant for a nuclear weapons test or for disposing of nuclear waste. The government brushed off the story, but the holes weren’t a secret.

Brazilian witnesses in all of this told me that, shortly after Collor won the 1989 election, the military asked him to support their nuclear project, as they had asked his predecessor Jose Sarney. Collor, I’m told, would not agree, and thereafter prepared to exploit the Cachimbo matter for all it was worth.  For starters, Collor aimed to curb the Brazilian military’s independence in nuclear affairs–first and foremost by short-circuiting officials in the Army and the Air Force who under Sarney had been angling for political and financial support to develop the capability to conduct peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs). “Collor was a genuine public relations talent,” one former official recalled, and “the holes in the ground were, in effect, a hoax.” During the 1980s, he said, “some people in the military wanted government money for their own nuclear projects, and they couldn’t get it unless they showed that they were making progress. That’s why they drilled the holes.”

When Collor’s officials inspected the shafts, they found that they were worthless for testing nuclear explosives. There was no cabling or other support infrastructure, and the bottom of the holes was full of water. The shafts weren’t perpendicular. “If anyone would have tried to test a  nuclear bomb in there, they would have failed,” the former official said.

The military ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985, and in retrospect it would appear that the holes at Cachimbo provided Collor a golden opportunity to set back potential adversaries to civilian rule. But other things were on his mind as well. Beginning in 1980 Brazil and Argentina embarked on a bilateral nuclear cooperation relationship, and both Collor and Argentine President Carlos Menem, elected a few months before Collor, were committed to deepening it. Demonstrating that civilians were firmly in control of Brazil’s nuclear program would help. Collor’s biggest domestic challenge was to defeat hyperinflation. Part of the recipie was to generate international confidence, and filling the holes was in step with a broader message that Collor’s leadership would be transparent, reliable, and dedicated to international cooperation.

Brazil and PNEs

Brazil was interested in PNEs from the beginning of its nuclear program. This cable shows that the U.S. Department of State was closely following Brazil’s interest in PNE’s as early as 1967. Brazil wasn’t alone in looking into PNEs in those days, of course, but because it was not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty its interest–like South Africa’s–didn’t preclude that the technology would be used for atomic weapons. Brazil’s military was, in fact, keen to pursue the PNE option, and, eventually, it was the Army and the Air Force that pressed to do PNE work, while the Navy instead set its sights on centrifuge uranium enrichment and development of a propulsion reactor for submarines.

In South Africa, a PNE program morphed into a secret program to develop a  nuclear weapons deterrent. In Brazil, the trajectory of the military’s PNE interest was blocked by civilian leaders, so the nature of Brazil’s interest in nuclear explosives was, in the view of Brazilians I talked to last week, more ambiguous. But not long after his Cachimbo appearance, Collor formally repudiated his country’s interest in PNEs before the United Nations General  Assembly.

In 2009, a Brazilian research scientist at the Army Technology Center (CETEX) published his doctoral thesis presented to Brazil’s Institute of Military Engineering, containing many details on the science behind nuclear explosions. The publication led to questions from the IAEA about the relationship between the author and the military’s nuclear legacy. The U.S. government may also have had questions about references in the text to U.S. warhead development. There were initial differences of official opinion about how Brazil should respond, and problems with the IAEA. Defense Minister Nelson Jobim ultimately dismissed the matter as irrrelevant to Brazil’s nuclear program. “The mere possibility of publishing this work in Brazil, and the material’s free circulation, serve as eloquent proof of the non-existence of an unauthorized nuclear program in the country,” Jobim said. But could information in the book have come from Brazil’s military past?

A More Nuanced Context

Every country that partakes in nuclear activities has an official narrative to explain these activities to the world. Here are 111 of these narratives from 2013, all posted on the IAEA website.

Brazil’s narrative has evolved over time, subject to both internal and external developments. Re-examining the record of events from a quarter century ago, it appears that Brazilians have walked the government’s 1990 story line back. What transpired at Cachimbo then appears to have a different context today where these elements prevail:

  • Collor viewed Cachimbo as an opportunity to throw the military onto the defensive while demonstrating to Argentina, the U.S. and others that his government would be a reliable foreign partner
  • Prior to the Cachimbo event Collor had been interacting with the military for nearly a year including about its current and future nuclear ambitions.
  • In 1989-90 all three branches of Brazil’s military sought government funding and support for nuclear activities which Collor was not willing to provide.
  • Collor and his aides were particularly determined to prevent the military’s pressing interest in a PNE project from becoming a nuclear weapons project.
  • During the 1980s the Air Force dug the holes at Cachimbo to convince Sarney it was making progress related to a PNE effort. Collor found out that the shafts could not have been used to test nuclear explosives or dispose of nuclear waste.

In 1990, Brazil’s new civilian leaders made a dramatic statement that was intended to hold the military at bay and assure the world that the new government would be a reliable and transparent partner–including in line with global concern about nuclear weapons proliferation which would intensify as soon as the first Gulf War was over. Collor stepping into the breach to symbolically crush what was described as a secret nuclear weapons project helped convey that message.

Today, witnesses to those events present a more nuanced and modest picture. They recall now that some personalities in the armed services wanted a more ambitious, military-run nuclear program including a PNE effort, but also that no Brazilian government had ever approved or funded this, and that Brazil’s “secret nuclear program” was less a reality than it was a vision entertained by its advocates.

Prior to Collor’s election, denials in Brazil and elsewhere discouraged Brazilians from seeking the whole truth about their country’s nuclear activities. During the 1980s, senior Brazilian nuclear executives seeking foreign cooperation routinely claimed there was no “parallel” nuclear project. German government spokesmen asserted on the record–in contradiction of Bonn’s own intelligence findings–that Brazil’s nuclear program had no military dimension.

Today, Brazilians have better resources to help them draw their own independent conclusions. Researchers led by Matias Spektor at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas are reconstructing the history of Brazil’s entire nuclear enterprise. What they are finding so far documents a long-term interest in both PNEs and nuclear weapons in Brazil, but also that there was never a top-down nuclear weapons effort anywhere in the government, and that Collor, in addition to keeping the Army and Air Force away from nuclear matters, also defunded the Navy’s nuclear program. A chunk of the research, from Carlo Patti, is here.

One critical piece of evidence in the government’s 1990 story has never been confirmed. The New York Times reported that Collor acted in response to a “50-page classified report” on the secret nuclear program which had reached his desk. That report has never surfaced. Some people in and around Collor’s government last week suggested to me that its existence may have been a rumor.

Did Brazil’s military in the past harbor hidden nuclear weapons ambitions? Were the services actually doing any work on nuclear weapons development? One government adviser told me the answer was a qualified yes. “There was a secret project, but it was at a very preliminary stage” when it was interrupted in 1990. Since  then the version of events reflected in the New York Times story has largely prevailed in the United States. But Brazilians have moved on. The 1990 narrative has been revised.  That may have led a few people to claim that Brazil never had any interest in nuclear weapons, but, far more importantly, it may have encouraged Brazilians to be more confident about their country’s nonproliferation profile.

 
 

Russia and Iran are conferring about the supply of new nuclear power plants at the Bushehr site on the Persian Gulf. Iran operates one Russian reactor there and building more could contribute to a comprehensive agreement between the six powers and Iran.

Let’s be clear that so far there’s no hard and fast deal for new Russian reactors in Iran, and also that there should be no concern about Russian sanctions-busting related to new reactor construction that is clearly linked to a comprehensive agreement between the powers and Iran. A news report that grabbed some attention on March 12, claiming that “Russia has agreed” to build two more reactors came from Iranian media–not Russian sources. More nuanced accounts said Iran and Russia were still discussing a “draft agreement.”

If we take for granted that this discussion is for real–since vendor Rosatom has confirmed that its deputy director was in Tehran this week to to hold talks about it–then the critical question for the future negotiation between Iran and the six powers is whether Russia will supply the low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel–for new reactors but also for the first Bushehr unit when Iran’s current 10-year fuel contract with Russia expires.

After Russia and Iran agreed in 1992 to complete the first Bushehr reactor, a contract was signed committing Russia to supply all the fuel for the initial ten years of operation, and committing Iran to returning the spent fuel to Russia. The reactor began operating in 2011. There’s no contract yet for Iran’s procurement after the first ten years.

Iran’s ‘practical needs’

What does this have to do with negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran?  Negotiators must arrive at what the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) calls “a mutually defined enrichment programme [for Iran] with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed upon.”

At the end of the day, the parties must decide how many of Iran’s 19,000 centrifuges Iran may operate for a specific period of time. Some observers speculate that the powers might agree to let Iran use between 3,000 and 5,000 centrifuges–with estimates trending in the upper part of the range should Iran agree to convert the IR-40 reactor from natural uranium to LEU fuel and then enrich the uranium for that and any other future research reactors under construction during the term of the agreement.

But the calculation of Iran’s “practical needs” for enrichment capacity would dramatically increase should it be agreed that Iran would make LEU fuel for power reactors. A Bushehr-type VVER reactor, with a nominal power rating of 910-megawatts and operating with a commercial capacity factor and duty cycle, would require about 100,000 separative-work units of enrichment capacity per year to meet the needs of refueling the reactor. Should Iran propose that it enrich the uranium for just a quarter of the fresh fuel that the reactor would require, it would need an enrichment capacity somewhat larger than Iran’s current population of  centrifuges. Should Iran aspire to make a lot more of this fuel, that could in its view justify development and deployment of more advanced centrifuges. These would include a model perhaps four times more powerful than its current IR-1 workhorse, and, as Iranian experts have suggested, a carbon-fiber machine maybe 15 times more powerful than IR-1 which apparently is still on the drawing board.

Because a primary objective of the JPOA is to lengthen Iran’s breakout timeline and, following from that, to strictly circumscribe its centrifuge enrichment capacity, the negotiation should preclude any understanding that a large centifuge population and an unbridled advanced centifuge R&D program in Iran would be justified by Iran’s vision for power reactor deployment.

Who will enrich Iran’s power reactor fuel?

Continued Russian supply of LEU fuel for reactors at Bushehr under commercial contracts would be the most straightforward solution from the point of spent fuel management, economics, safety, and successful negotiation of a comprehensive agreement with Iran. Were Iran to include substantial enrichment requirements for future power reactors in its assessment of its “practical needs” under the JPOA, the negotiation of a comprehensive agreement with Iran would overnight become imperiled.

For the foreseeable future Iran will not be able to make fuel assemblies for the VVER reactor design used at Bushehr. Last fall, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), asserted that a fabrication plant to make uranium dioxide fuel for power reactor fuel would soon be fully operational. But Iran has no agreement with Russia licensing the AEOI to make Bushehr fuel, giving Iran access to the intellectual property for the design of the reactor core internals, for the design of the fuel assemblies, and for the chemical and physical specifications of the fuel. Without that, Iran cannot make the Bushehr fuel.

Iran has no diagnostic quality assurance program for making power reactor fuel. Russia and Rosatom–with serious asperations in the global commercial nuclear power market at stake–would never permit Iran to load any domestically-produced fuel into the Bushehr reactor without acceptable safety assurances and legal liability coverage.

Russia has a strong commercial interest in making sure that there will be a Russian fuel supply component in any future reactor contract with Iran. Russia lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the first Bushehr project, and Rosatom sees fuel supply as an important route to recouping its losses.

The contract for Bushehr fuel delivery was signed for 10 years, but a 1992 bilateral government agreement to build the plant specifies that Russia will deliver the fuel during its whole life cycle, Anton Khlopkov pointed out. According to Article 5 of this agreement. “Russian organizations shall supply the Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear fuel for the nuclear power plant being built there in accordance with the present Agreement for the entire lifespan of the nuclear power plant. The fuel shall be supplied in the form of finished sets of fuel assemblies and control rod assemblies.”

In negotiations over Iran’s “practical needs” for enrichment capacity, Iran may pull a joker out of the deck: aspirations to build an indigenous 300-MW power reactor at Darkovin. If Iran were to claim that it needs enrichment capacity to support this venture, the same dangers for the negotiation with the powers loom as in the case of any Iranian designs to enrich VVER fuel. Most caveats about Iran’s ability to make power reactor fuel for Bushehr would also apply–to say nothing about Iran’s doubtful capabilities to make critical pressure-boundary components and other safety-significant items for a wholly-indigenous power reactor project.

Iran Foreign Minister Javed Zarif and other Iranian officials have explained that, in the past, Iran kept secret its nuclear activities and sought fuel cycle autonomy because the regime was convinced that Western powers aimed to thwart Iran’s success. On the basis of the JPOA and flanking measures, were the powers to provide Iran access to the global nuclear market, Iran would not need a loss-making autarchic nuclear fuel cycle industry.

The geopolitics of uranium enrichment are at a crossroads and how Iran and the powers resolve this issue will have signal global imporance. For reasons which to some extent resonate with Iran’s national narrative, Brazil has embarked on an indigenous centrifuge enrichment program to serve a future line of power reactors. After several decades of development Brazil’s centrifuges are meeting about 5% of the country’s demand for enrichment services. On the other side of the ledger, South Korea, whose industry has recently favored plans to set up a domestic enrichment plant to supply fuel to about two dozen operating power reactors, may instead become a shareholder in an existing uranium enrichment plant located elsewhere.

 
 

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano on March 3 had this to say about recently-voiced Chinese concerns about Japan’s plutonium inventory:

We have drawn (the) conclusion that all nuclear materials in Japan stay in peaceful purposes… Therefore, I do not have (a) reason to have concern that this (material) … will be diverted.

At issue are 331 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium long associated with the Fast Critical Assembly operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency at Tokai.

Friends in the IAEA boardroom this week expressed the view that Amano’s confidence seemed informed by the IAEA having for years reached a safeguards “broader conclusion” for Japan — as Amano himself explained that concept to a general audience in 2012: “If [a country] implements the Additional Protocol, we can provide assurance that all the activities in that country [are for] peaceful purposes.” The IAEA has annually renewed its broader conclusion for Japan since it was first given in 2004.

The broader conclusion is about IAEA safeguards, not nuclear security, and Amano in his reported remarks did not refer to the nuclear security dimension of the Tokai plutonium. But he must know that security issues–not Japan’s nonproliferation credentials–have been at the heart of five years of  bilateral U.S.-Japan discussions about this plutonium inventory.

Japan has agreed to remove the Tokai weapons-grade plutonium to the U.S. as part of its voluntary offer to the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands later this month. This will be announced then, was more or less spelled out by Japanese media in January, but it wasn’t refered to by Amano in his answer to reporters’ questions in Vienna this week.

In addition to the Tokai weapons-grade plutonium inventory, Japan’s nuclear R&D facilities also host considerable inventories of weapons-grade uranium–perhaps 1,400 kilograms, with about 500 kg hosted by a single critical assembly installation. Given Japan’s evolving policy on its weapons-grade plutonium inventories, we might anticipate that in the future at least a portion of Japan’s uranium inventory may likewise be removed to the U.S.

Fukushima may have informed this decision making. While some media reports on U.S.-Japan interaction left open whether Japanese “balking” at repatriating the plutonium meant that Tokyo was hedging for strategic reasons, in fact Japan had argued that weapons-grade materials were needed for JAEA’s fast reactor research on sound scientific grounds. Since 2011, however, Japan’s advanced reactor vision has receded into the distance.

Before he became the Director General of the IAEA, Amano was ambassador in Japan’s Permanent Mission in Vienna, and in that capacity he offered these remarks in 2006 concerning Japan’s management of its HEU inventories:

[Japan] has used highly enriched uranium at research reactors in the past, but since the end of 1970s, it has reduced the uranium enriched level from HEU to LEU. By now, Japan has almost completed the conversion. A remaining issue is that of the transportation of highly enriched spent fuel to the United States. A considerable amount of this fuel has already been transported, with the remainder due for transportation at a later date. Reducing the use of highly enriched uranium fuel is an important issue in preventing nuclear terrorism. I hope the process of replacing it with low enriched uranium fuel will be accelerated worldwide

Why did China raise the issue of Japan’s plutonium beginning last month? (Beijing quasi-official media after Amano’s statement this week reiterated its concerns). The most readily available explanation is that a Japan bristling with weapons-grade nuclear materials fits a Chinese narrative that the Abe government intends to re-militarize and threaten Japan’s neighbors. Is China concerned about Japan’s plans to reprocess its power reactor spent fuel at Rokkasho-mura? Perhaps, but China itself is planning on embarking on commercial-scale reprocessing of its own growing spent fuel inventory.

Recent media interventions over this issue in fact look more like an us-versus-them standoff in the East China Sea and less like a discussion of Japan’s nuclear materials security. China ran the Japan plutonium issue up the flagpole in Beijing in mid-February. That was three weeks after Japanese media had already reported that Japan had agreed to U.S. wishes to give up the plutonium at Tokai. When Amano this week brushed aside Chinese concerns about the plutonium, the U.S. ambassador in Vienna in a statement reinforced Amano’s message that weapons-grade materials in Japan were of “no concern.”

That’s not the view of U.S. officials who have been discussing this issue with Japan since 2009. On less public occasions, they have pointed out that with respect to Japan’s comparative openness–the weapons-grade materials are clearly civilian and located in facilities where international research is ongoing–there is a residual security risk associated with them. The U.S. view is that removing weapons-grade nuclear materials from Japan to the U.S. would enhance their security. Japan now appears to clearly share that perspective.

 
 

Cutaway view of a Sherman tank

The six powers and Iran are in Vienna this week to move forward the process of concluding a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear conundrum. At the outset of talks on February 17, the U.S. Department of State provided some public clarification about what the six have in mind for the Joint Commission in contributing to that result.

The explanation was welcome, but it also left open how Iran, the powers, and the International Atomic Energy Agency in coming months will ultimately put to rest allegations concerning what the IAEA has been calling the possible military dimensions (PMD) of the Iranian nuclear program.

To recall: The Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) that Iran and the powers agreed to last November 24 said this:

A Joint Commission of E3/EU+3 and Iran will be established to monitor the implementation of the near-term measures [under the JPOA] and address issues that may arise, with the IAEA responsible for verification of nuclear-related measures. The Joint Commission will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.

What, exactly, will the Joint Commission do? Beginning on November 24, I have asked that question, because until now the “resolution of past and present issues of concern” has been the responsibility of Iran and the IAEA–not the powers.

The JPOA provided no self-evident answer to this question, and officials from negotiating states will tell you that the language in the JPOA assigning the Joint Commission responsibility for “resolution of past and present issues of concern” was ill-chosen and confusing. Especially because during the negotiation of the JPOA different parties had expressed very different views about the future of the PMD issue, indeed about the significance of resolving it, in December and January I continued to pursue this.

In the public space, meanwhile, lack of clarity prevailed, abetted by accounts distilled from supremely contradictory Iranian and Western media reports asserting, for example, that according to Deputy Iran Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araqchi, the Joint Commission would be “an influential body that will have authority to decide disputes,” while “U.S. officials described it as a discussion forum.”

The confidential “non-paper” that Iran and the powers negotiated prior to entry-into-force of the JPOA on January 20, to flesh out details of how the JPOA would be implemented, does not provide further details on what role the Joint Commission will have.

That’s the essential background to a press briefing given in Vienna on  February 17 by a person described by the State Department as a “Senior Administration Official.” I’m in Berlin, not Vienna, but I’m assuming as usual it was U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman doing the talking (she had briefed the U.S. Senate on February 4).  According to the State Department’s posted transcript, at the briefing Jonathan Tirone at Bloomberg asked the question I and Vertic director Andreas Persbo had put forth last month about the Joint Commission, and specifically concerning its role in explaining PMD.

This was the answer:

The joint commission is not set up to clear away PMD. That is, in the first instance, the IAEA’s job. And they’re undertaking that. And in fact, the more that Iran can do to meet their obligations with the IAEA, the better for the nuclear negotiating process around a comprehensive agreement. So the two partner with each other, but they are not the same. The JPOA says that we will be of assistance where we can in resolving past and present issues, which reflects possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. But we want to do that in service to the IAEA, and we don’t want to do the job that belongs to the IAEA.

The joint commission was set up as a mechanism, when necessary, if there are compliance issues with the JPOA or questions that need to get resolved. So that’s what the joint commission is for. So if Iran was not fulfilling a commitment they made or we weren’t fulfilling a commitment we had made, there would be a place to discuss those things, even while we are negotiating the comprehensive agreement, so that any compliance issues wouldn’t come to the comprehensive negotiation, but would have another mechanism for facilitation. And it was anticipated that would happen at the expert level, and then come up to the political directors and up to foreign ministers if needed.

So far, there hasn’t been need or a purpose for the joint commission to meet. There needs to be content and substance for such a meeting. The IAEA is preparing monthly reports to let us know how things are going…

We can conclude from this answer that, in principle, the powers fully accept the view that the IAEA is supposed to handle with Iran the resolution of the PMD file, and further–as both Andreas and I had outlined as a possibility–that, if a problem in the future were to arise because Iran did not satisfy the IAEA, the Joint Commission would provide a forum to try to resolve it initially.

The answer is also consistent with secure information that the Joint Commission was originally intended to be set up as a forum to address concerns by Iran that sanctions-lifting happens as it should. That would explain why, as the answer says, there have been no meetings of the Joint Commission so far.

But what happens if Iran balks and the IAEA after discussion with the powers and Iran at the expert level fails to resolve significant PMD issues? What the State Department said would be consistent with our suggestion from January that ultimately a political decision would made whether an unresolved issue might, in fact, be declared sufficiently addressed. That decision would not happen in the trenches of the IAEA Department of Safeguards but at the top and only after high-level consultations including, presumably, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano himself–although the State Department did not mention the IAEA in this regard:  …Any compliance issues would [first be dealt with] at the expert level, and then come up to the political directors and up to foreign ministers if needed.

There you have it.

But is my suggestion that critical PMD matters might not be solved by Iran’s simply answering the IAEA’s questions just mean-spirited grist to the mill of those in Washington and elsewhere who haven’t joined the bandwagon on the Iran deal? Hardly.

On February 3, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, visited the German Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin. Zarif explained to us that Iran has no aim or interest in having nuclear weapons. In fact, he said that the credibility of Iran’s regime was founded upon Iran not having such an ambition or interest. That’s the crux. If the credibility of Iran’s regime rests on its disavowal of nuclear arms, then any admission by Iran to the IAEA that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been engaged in nuclear weapons-related research or experiments–which prima facie would have to be reported to the Board of Governors–would severely damage the regime’s reputation. Shia theology might imply that nuclear weapons are sinful, but the IAEA’s dossier poses a potential major credibility problem. For Iran at any point to admit that it worked on nuclear weapons would be  an order of magnitude more significant than Iran admitting, as it did in 2003, to having failed to declare to the IAEA a flurry of nuclear activities which could be justified by Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.

Beginning last November, the IAEA has joined the powers in a strategy of moving forward in “resolution of past and present issues of concern” by picking low-hanging fruit first. That’s spelled out in the Framework for Cooperation that the IAEA and Iran signed in Tehran. The two parties started building confidence by arranging visits to sites that probably don’t raise any show-stopper issues. They’ve now set forth a second set of seven issues they want to resolve. One of these–allegations that Iran has worked on developing detonators for nuclear explosives–was pulled out of the IAEA’s PMD dossier with the deliberate intention of getting the resolution on PMD matters moving.

At the Munich Security Conference on February 2, during a somewhat misinformed interchange with a German newspaper editor, Amano seemed to imply that the IAEA was keen to probe further Iran’s previous experiments with polonium that might have been related to PMD, since Po-210 can be used for directed neutron initiation. There are in fact nuclear detonator-related issues to resolve in the IAEA’s PMD file, but unless there is new and undisclosed information, polonium can hardly be the most important of these.  For several years, Iran’s polonium experiments have not been on the IAEA’s front burner.

A few commentators therefore have opined this month that Amano was amiss in mentioning the agency’s interest in polonium. But in fact after Amano took the bait in Munich, the mini-media frenzy which followed advanced a possible civilian explanation for Iran’s electronic bridgewire experiments–development of detonation technology for Iran’s oil and gas industry–which Iran may well put forth before Amano reports next to the Board of Governors. If Iran explains this work to the IAEA on these grounds, and if Amano accepts that explanation, Iran and the IAEA will then move on to the next PMD issue.

Addressing the detonation issue will bring Amano and Iran to Parchin–a location where member-state information suggests Iran has carried out suspicious neutron-generation experiments. Some important member states have long considered the IAEA’s prioritizing of getting renewed access to Parchin to be counterproductive, especially since Iran has meanwhile scrubbed that site clean. Following discussions with the U.S. and other member states last fall leading up to the November 11 agreement with Iran, and in line with the coordinated low-hanging-fruit strategy, Amano has accommodated the powers and walked back the IAEA’s approach to getting information about this site. If Iran’s answers to the IAEA’s questions about what happened at that site are in the view of the IAEA not sufficient, then, as the State Department implied this week, the problem would be aired at the “expert level” first and if not resolved there, Iran and the powers would count on “political directors and foreign ministers if needed” to try to finesse it.

 

 
 

The following post was authored by Mark Hibbs and Andreas Persbo.

When the six powers and Iran announced in Geneva on November 24, 2013 that they had agreed to an “initial step” toward comprehensive resolution of the nuclear crisis, some critics glumly predicted that a final deal would never materialize. It was more likely, they asserted, that Western states keen to curb Iran’s nuclear program would face ever-greater pressure to lift sanctions, fortifying Iran’s resolve to resist long-term limits on sensitive nuclear activities. Ultimately, according to this dusky scenario, Iran would outlast its adversaries, sanctions would wither, and Iran would emerge with a rejuvenated economy and with its nuclear program back on track.

In the absence of clarity about how the Iran deal will be implemented, those of us thinking hard about the verification component have also been a little concerned. But beginning on November 24, our concerns were different–not about negotiations for the “final step” grinding to a halt, but instead about the prospect that Iran and the powers might achieve results too quickly.

The Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), concluded in Geneva set the ambitious goal that the “final step” will be in place “no more than one year” after the “initial step” enters into force. Pessimists to the contrary, a final agreement could emerge on schedule if negotiators–especially in Iran and in the United States–respond to their domestic critics by cracking whips to get fast results.

If the JPOA’s parties want to close the deal on time, they have a lot of work to do, including figuring out how they will interact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in “resolving outstanding issues.”

How that is supposed to happen isn’t explained by the JPOA because it was concluded quickly, after the U.S. accelerated the pace of negotiations. Led by the U.S., negotiators abandoned a four-step plan for a two-step plan. That permitted a dramatic breakthrough in Geneva, but it also meant that the route to the “final step” would have to be improvised.

The JPOA says that the IAEA is “responsible for the verification of nuclear-related measures.” Its role in more intensive monitoring in Iran may be straightforward, but what is less clear is how the IAEA will work with the parties to resolve “past and present issues of concern.” These include the allegations–not directly mentioned by the JPOA–that the IAEA has brought forth concerning so-called “possible military dimensions” (PMDs), including the involvement of military organizations and officials in activities related to the development of nuclear weapons. The JPOA calls for the creation of a Joint Commission, representing the powers and Iran, to “monitor the implementation of the near-term measures and address issues that may arise [and] work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.”

The Role of the IAEA Secretariat

The powers and Iran should strike a “final step” agreement in parallel with a judgment by the IAEA expressing, at the very least, confidence that Iran is not carrying out activities allowing it to turn its nuclear materials, especially its inventory of enriched uranium, into nuclear weapons. If that doesn’t happen, the comprehensive Iran deal would not be politically sustainable, Iran might retain undeclared and undetected nuclear capabilities, and the IAEA’s credibility would be damaged. Beyond that requirement remains the need to comprehend Iran’s past activities in this area.

But will it be up to the IAEA Secretariat to decide whether “outstanding issues” are laid to rest so the “final step” can be concluded? How the powers have responded to the PMD challenge so far does not tell us how the JPOA will proceed in this matter.

The IAEA has accumulated PMD-related evidence since about 2005. In November 2011, the IAEA Secretariat provided a detailed accounting of PMD allegations in a report to its Board of Governors. The report got a mixed reception in the boardroom. Western states applauded Director General Yukiya Amano for having aired the allegations. Russia strongly objected that doing so would make resolving them more difficult. Amano’s report added to the political pressure on Iran. But Russia’s assessment may also prove to be correct.

Prior to November 2011, Western states on the board had urged Amano to reveal its PMD evidence to the governors. The U.S., in a statement to the Board in March 2011, charged Iran with “serious non-compliance with its obligations” on six grounds, one being that “Iran is not cooperating with the Agency regarding the outstanding issues which give rise to concern about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.”

The U.S. said that the IAEA has the “legal safeguards authority to request cooperation from Iran to determine the correctness and completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations” and also that it was “Iran’s obligation to comply with those requests.” Further, the U.S. said, “We recognize the Director General cannot draw final verification conclusions in specific cases if the state in question will not allow the necessary access.”

But while repeatedly urging Iran to answer the IAEA’s questions about PMD, the U.S. did not categorically state that actions by the IAEA Secretariat were essential for resolution of the PMD issue. And since the conclusion of the JPOA, some of the parties to the deal have suggested that the IAEA’s role in implementing it should not be framed in terms of independent “authority” to resolve the PMD allegations previously leveled at Iran.

The JPOA’s lack of clarity about how PMD allegations will be resolved may ultimately reflect a lack of consensus about the IAEA’s mandate to pursue allegations of weaponization activities in non-nuclear-weapons states. This matter was first raised after the 1991 Gulf War exposed Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons program.

Until the Gulf War, the IAEA’s safeguards system was mostly based on material accountancy at declared locations. Failure of the IAEA to detect most aspects of Iraq’s weapons effort forced a re-evaluation of the IAEA’s safeguards philosophy, culminating in the adoption of the Additional Protocol (AP). The AP gives the IAEA more access, but there is no expert consensus that it expands the IAEA’s reach into weaponization activities in a state. Some experts have also objected to IAEA involvement in nuclear weapons-related investigations on nonproliferation grounds, arguing that in the case of NPT parties, this should be left to the five nuclear-weapons states–all of which are parties to the JPOA.

In 2005, former IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei appeared to doubt whether the IAEA was mandated to investigate weaponization. He told Arms Control Today that “we don’t have an all-encompassing mandate to look for every computer study on weaponization. Our mandate is to make sure that all nuclear materials in a country are declared to us.” The “logic behind” the IAEA’s focus on nuclear materials, he said, was that “if a country is denied the nuclear material, they cannot have a weapon.”

Some experts have adopted a very literal view on safeguards implementation, essentially arguing that the IAEA has only the right to verify the correctness of material declarations. They challenge the notion that the IAEA has an inherent right to judge the completeness of a country’s declaration as well. Under such a narrow interpretation, investigation into weaponization work falls outside the IAEA’s mandate. The IAEA has not, however, limited its judgments to nuclear materials accountancy in its reports on Iran to the Board of Governors. In an aside that has appeared in its Iran reports since May 2011, the Secretariat observes:

The Board of Governors has confirmed on numerous occasions, since as early as 1992, that paragraph 2 of INFCIRC/153 (Corr.), which corresponds to Article 2 of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement, authorizes and requires the Agency to seek to verify both the non-diversion of nuclear material from declared activities (i.e. correctness) and the absence of undeclared nuclear activities in the State (i.e. completeness) (see, for example, GOV/OR.864, para. 49 and GOV/OR.865, paras 53–54).

In support, others argue that because the development of nuclear weapons must at some stage involve nuclear material, the IAEA has a clear mandate to investigate where weaponization activities involve such material. After all, in such cases the material used would be undeclared and the state’s material declaration accordingly “incorrect.” Moreover, they would say that weaponization activities are a clear indication of intent to use material for explosives purposes, hence raising questions as to whether all nuclear material has, in fact, been declared by the state.

The Role of the Board of Governors

The most straightforward way to resolve PMD issues would be, prima facie, for Iran to answer all the allegations raised by the IAEA, and to admit any specific cases of past or current activities related to the development of nuclear explosives. However, because Iran has steadfastly denied that it has even considered developing nuclear weapons, and has routinely denounced the IAEA’s allegations as “baseless” and “fabricated,” it is highly unlikely that Iran would concede to the IAEA that it had lied to the agency that it has crossed the line into nuclear weapons activities.

Instead, Iran might agree to inform the powers of any PMD-related activities it has carried out. One former IAEA official said that Iran might tell the powers something like this:

Look, we know that your intelligence agencies are all over our program, you know what we did, when, and where. To move forward, the most important thing is that we agree not to do these things in the future. Iran won’t cooperate if we have to admit past activities. Iran’s pride and status in the region and the world are supremely important to us. If we give the information to the IAEA, it will be made public, like most of the other information the IAEA has learned about us since 2003. Instead, we can tell you what you need to know in the Joint Commission, and we can brief the IAEA in very general terms about what we disclose to you.

In practice, the IAEA’s role in pursuing PMD allegations under the JPOA may be limited by understandings between Iran, the powers negotiating with Iran, and the IAEA Board of Governors. One resolution scenario might be this:

  • After Iran provides information on PMD to the powers, they would consult with the IAEA Secretariat and urge it to concur that the data and explanations provided by Iran are adequate;
  • The powers then obtain support from their allies in the Board of Governors, and Non-Aligned states on the Board join Iran in understanding that PMD issues are resolved; and finally
  • The Board of Governors passes a resolution recommending the U.N. Security Council to support it in urging the IAEA Secretariat to resume routine safeguards in Iran.


Resolving safeguards issues in Iran will require the judgments of all the organs of the IAEA. Ultimately, however, the authority to carry out the functions of the Agency rests completely with member states serving on the Board of Governors (this is explicit in Article VI.F of the Statute of the IAEA). The Director General, according to Article VII.B of the Statute, is the Chief Administrative Officer of the organization, and is required to perform his duties in accordance with regulations adopted by the Board.

In theory, therefore, the Board could simply instruct the Director General to resume “routine” safeguards practice in Iran. This step, however, would not be politically wise, as it could damage the credibility and reflect badly on the impartiality of the IAEA Secretariat. To the greatest extent possible, Board members and the Secretariat should proceed instead on the basis of frequent consultations.

After consultations, the Director General might report to the Board on behalf of the Secretariat that PMD allegations have been laid to rest. There is a risk that the Secretariat and the Board will not agree, but the more consultations take place, the less that risk will be. At the very least, the Director General may be able to report that the IAEA Secretariat does not have significant concerns about ongoing PMD activities in Iran.

The challenge facing the IAEA in consulting with powerful Board members to make judgments about a member state’s nuclear program that are necessary for permitting a political agreement to enter into force, and which could greatly affect world peace, is without precedent. Ultimately the IAEA’s Board will have the upper hand. But in the past, the Secretariat and member states have consulted and concurred in specific cases not to be deterred from moving toward routine application of safeguards by safeguards-technical uncertainties.

In one historical case, the tails of a specific enrichment plant in one state could not be adequately explained. As a consequence, the quantities of enriched uranium produced by the plant could not be satisfactorily assessed. These discrepancies remain today. In another case, a state that had not previously declared past production of significant quantities of plutonium, also did not provide key data about past weaponization-related activities.

In both cases, the IAEA Secretariat and member states decided to accept the uncertainties and move on. These were clearly political decisions, but they were informed by a holistic verification judgment, which included, significantly, these states’ record of cooperation with the IAEA throughout its investigations.

While these examples illustrate how the Secretariat and member states in the past took decisions on the basis of consultation, the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear capabilities has no precedent in the IAEA’s history, and will require a unique approach.

Until now, the IAEA has not been satisfied with Iran’s cooperation in addressing the Agency’s concerns about past activities. That situation can change, however, through Iran’s implementation of the JPOA and a November 11 Iran-IAEA Framework for Cooperation. In the coming months, Iran could become transparent enough to allow the Agency to express that, at a very minimum, it has no significant PMD concerns about ongoing activities.

What about the IAEA’s PMD concerns about past activities? Were the IAEA to differentiate between “present” activities it was confident were peaceful and accounted for, and allegations of “past” activities that remained unresolved, the IAEA and its governors would have to decide–as in the above historical cases referred to–whether remedial and corrective actions by Iran are necessary. That approach would leave open the possibility that ultimate resolution of “past issues” in Iran would be postponed until after the “final step” is concluded. That might imply further that some sanctions would remain in place until it was finally agreed by the Board of Governors that the matter could be laid to rest. In any case, the sooner the Joint Commission and the IAEA get to work on this challenge, the better.

The Role of the Joint Commission 

The JPOA says that a “Joint Commission” staffed by the powers and Iran will be set up and “will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.” According to a summary of an implementation document for the JPOA, made available by the U.S. in a public statement on Jan. 16:

The Joint Commission will be composed of experts of the EU, P5+1 and Iran, and it will convene at least monthly to consider the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action and any issues that may arise.  Any decisions that are required on the basis of these discussions will be referred to the Political Directors of the EU, the P5+1, and Iran.

The clarification that the powers and Iran will confer on a monthly basis helps dispel concern that the IAEA Secretariat might come under eleventh-hour pressure to accede to the will of the parties to declare certain sensitive issues resolved. There must and will be frequent consultation between the IAEA Secretariat and the parties to the JPOA.

The transcript of a U.S. government press briefing held Jan. 12 said that “issues like the military aspects of the program… will have to be dealt with in the comprehensive resolution,” without providing any information on the division of labor between the IAEA, the powers, and Iran. All this has led to some unease that past issues will be “grandfathered” before being adequately resolved. While full disclosure by Iran to the powers, followed by an informal briefing by the powers and Iran to the IAEA, may work practically, some fear that such a solution may set a bad precedent.

The Joint Commission has its forerunners. The concept of a consultative committee or a joint commission to facilitate the effective implementation of arms control commitments has been used in the past. Examples include the committee set up under the 1972 ABM Treaty and the 1977 Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD). A similar mechanism is also in use in the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (in particular Articles 10 and 11 as well as Annexes 3 and 4). The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty explicitly allows for a “complaints procedure” that does not involve the IAEA.

The Joint Commission might be involved in numerous tasks, including:

  • Considering questions regarding verification of compliance with obligations left ambiguous in the JPOA;
  • Providing, on a voluntary basis, information any party considers necessary to assure confidence in compliance with obligations assumed;
  • Considering changes in the strategic situation that may have bearing on the provisions of the JPOA;
  • Considering proposals for the strengthening of the JPOA;
  • Considering proposals for further measures aimed at restoring long-term confidence in Iran’s intentions; and
  • Considering whether long-term confidence in Iran’s intentions has been restored.


The Joint Commission would appear to be a critical tool for resolving PMD and other “outstanding issues” in the coming months. Its use should be informed by the need to make technically and politically sound judgments on the basis of close consultations that demonstrate Iran’s will to back away from nuclear weapons capabilities while strengthening the credibility of the IAEA.

 
 

With the initial Iran Deal done, we are now looking forward to its implementation and verification. That means that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have more work to do over the next six months. But what, exactly, will it be doing?

Most of the IAEA activities called for by the Joint Plan of Action appear to be fully consistent with things the IAEA is doing now, including in Iran. IAEA monitoring of centrifuge production will break new ground and may require an approach that will not offend other uranium-enriching countries. It isn’t clear why the agreement includes the provision for daily inspections at Iran’s enrichment plants. In any case, it would appear that the IAEA has the authority to move forward in doing the needed verification under the agreement.

 The Joint Commission

The Preamble of the Joint Plan of Action sets forth that “the IAEA [will be] responsible for verification of nuclear-related measures” called for by Iran and the powers. The deal establishes a Joint Commission that will consist of representatives from the powers and Iran to “monitor the implementation of… near-term measures. The Joint Commission will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.”

What will be the specific tasks of the Joint Commission? Some participants in discussions with the IAEA claim to know that the Joint Commission’s members will concern themselves primarily with sanctions-related issues, leaving nuclear verification to the IAEA, regardless of whatever may be implied by the above reference to a cooperative relationship between the Joint Commission and the Vienna agency, which is not spelled out in the text. The IAEA is not a party to the Iran Deal, and it is not a member of the Joint Commission. If media reports are correct, however, the IAEA will attend an initial meeting of the Joint Commission early next week. By then at the latest, the IAEA, Iran, and the powers must know what is in store for the IAEA in dealing with the Joint Commission. If it is intended that the Joint Commission wikk work closely with the IAEA, there must be an understanding to protect confidentiality of information. Beyond that, any Joint Commission participation in any IAEA verification activities in Iran would pose serious legal and confidentiality issues.

 

Enhanced Monitoring

The text of the Joint Plan of Action says this about the IAEA’s role under the rubric “enhanced monitoring”:

Iran would undertake the following voluntary measures:

  • Provision of specified information to the IAEA, including information on Iran’s plans for nuclear facilities, a description of each building on each nuclear site, a description of the scale of operations for each location engaged in specific nuclear activities, information on uranium mines and mills, and information on source material. This information would be provided within three months of the adoption of these measures. 
  • Submission of an updated DIQ [Design Information Questionnaire] for the reactor at Arak, designated by the IAEA as the IR-40, to the IAEA. 
  • Steps to agree with the IAEA on conclusion of the Safeguards Approach for the reactor at Arak, designated by the IAEA as the IR-40. 
  • Daily IAEA inspector access when inspectors are not present for the purpose of Design Information Verification, Interim Inventory Verification, Physical Inventory Verification, and unannounced inspections, for the purpose of access to offline surveillance records, at Fordow and Natanz.
  • IAEA inspector managed access to:  centrifuge assembly workshops centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities; and uranium mines and mills.

 

The first and the last of the above points appear to follow from the Framework for Cooperation, which Iran and the IAEA signed in Tehran on November 11. The Annex to that agreement specifically mentions only two locations: the Gchine mine and the heavy water production plant located adjacent to the IR-40 reactor under construction. The IAEA will visit the heavy water production plant on Sunday. But that visit is unrelated to the steps called for in the Joint Plan of Action.

It is understood that the IAEA will need more resources–personnel and money–to do the verification work called for under the Joint Plan of Action. But the amounts need not be very great, since most of the work the IAEA will be asked to do follows from its application of routine safeguards at declared installations in Iran. Much of the scope of work itself would appear to be well within the IAEA’s existing competencies and routine activities, including in Iran:

  • At Iran’s Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz and the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) enrichment plants, the IAEA could without difficulty, using its existing inspection regime with some extra inspection activities, verify that Iran has halted all enrichment above 5% and dismantled the connections necessary to enrich to above 5% U-235.
  • The IAEA could verify the downblending of Iran’s inventory of 20%-enriched uranium at PFEP and maybe also at FFEP. At the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz it would verifiy that the UF6 is converted to oxide. Additional inspections may be required to meet the six-month timetable.
  • With some extra inspection activity, the IAEA could without difficulty verify that no additional centrifuges are being installed and that designated installed centrifuge capacity at both enrichment plants is idle.
  • The IAEA can verify that the IR-40 is not operating, and that Iran is not making or testing fuel, or installing equipment at the reactor. The IAEA can carry out inspections for this purpose at the Arak site, at the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), and at a critical facility.
  • The IAEA can confirm that it has no information that Iran is not violating its agreement not to build a reprocessing plant for the IR-40. This issue should not be a problem under the agreement. If Iran were to inform the IAEA it is constructing a hot cell facility, the IAEA would in any case have to inspect it quickly to verify design information.
  • The same applies for construction of any new uranium enrichment facilities in Iran.
  • It should be possible for the IAEA to obtain information about Iran’s mining and milling activities, as well as about heavy water production, during the next six months.
  • Ditto for long-sought design information verification (DIV), more frequent inspector access, and provision of key data, consistent with the modified Code 3.1 and the Additional Protocol, for the IR-40 reactor.

 

Problem Areas

A few activities that the Joint Plan of Action calls upon the IAEA to perform do raise some potential issues.

The inventory of uranium enriched to 3.5% U-235: Iran has committed to halt progress in the growth of this stockpile. Iran must not increase the inventory such that the amount at the end of six months is not greater than at the beginning, and Iran must convert any newly-enriched uranium from UF6 to oxide. The IAEA can verify this at the FEP/PFEP and FFEP using its established inspection regime. But the six-month timeline may mean that the IAEA should perform an interim physical inventory verification (PIV) at these installations near the end of the six-month period.

Verifying Iran’s compliance on centrifuge production: This action is new and requires additional resources and agreement with Iran and the powers over what it entails. The IAEA is not doing this in other countries with centrifuge enrichment programs. It is possible that enriching states–the members of the Almelo Treaty, France, Russia, China, Brazil, Japan, perhaps even the U.S.–would not want to see the IAEA expand its authority into centrifuge production monitoring, in part for nonproliferation and intellectual property reasons. A “black box” approach to this challenge in Iran may therefore be the answer.

Daily inspections at Natanz and Fordo: Iran has committed to provide inspectors daily access at these facilities to ensure comprehensive monitoring. It isn’t clear why. Does the IAEA want to use this provision to increase the frequency of its inspections? If so, then the agency will have to work out the logistics required.

IAEA safeguards aficionados will tell you that, in safeguards terminology, “daily presence” means “continuous inspection”–a notion which was introduced for use at reprocessing plants, where significant quantities of material are constantly flowing. There’s lots of material flowing at enrichment plants, too, but the amounts are by comparison small; the IAEA only needs to look at the feed, product, and tails to do a material balance at the plant.  The enriched uranium product is collected in cylinders that fill up slowly and are detached from the process when full. What is of safeguards significance is how much and what material is in the product cylinders and where are they stored. (There is also the issue of undeclared feed and take-off points to reckon with.) So the question is whether the IAEA really needs “continuous inspection” to ensure against undeclared movement of product cylinders. The IAEA doesn’t really need 24/7 personnel presence in at least some enrichment plants operating today. Having inspectors in the plant all the time might make the window of opportunity for a diversion smaller, but the marginal value may be very limited.

The IAEA’s response to this point in the Joint Plan of Action may depend on the specific design of the enrichment plants in Iran. At Russian centrifuge plants, some settings which would be diversion-critical are made in the control room and the change would take just 15 minutes to accomplish. At Urenco plants, the same operations would require making hardware adjustments in the piping in centrifuge cascades.

IAEA Resources

Right now, the IAEA is spending a lot of money on safeguards in Iran–US $12,256,000 in 2012.  That’s more than for any other IAEA member state except Japan. The lion’s share of this amount pays for activities related to the IAEA’s investigation of Iran’s nuclear program under mandates from the IAEA board of governors and the U.N. Security Council–not routine inspections at declared facilities. Routine safeguards are comparatively inexpensive. Like Iran, the Netherlands has a large uranium enrichment plant and one power reactor. Routine safeguarding of nuclear activities in the Netherlands, however, last year cost only $1,888,000.

At any one time, the IAEA probably has no more than about four or five personnel on the ground in Iran doing safeguards. A few more–certainly not 100 or even a score–may be needed to fulfil the IAEA’s expanded mission under the Joint Plan of Action.

The same goes for the money that will be needed. This will likely be a small fraction of the total current safeguards cost in Iran. Since the IAEA passed its 2014 budget at the General Conference three months ago, the easiest solution would be for member states–most logically the six powers themselves–to agree to pay the costs under an extrabudgetary program. In the past some states have objected to the growth of extrabudgetary funding to cover the costs of IAEA safeguards. But it is not anticipated that this concern will stand in the way of funding verification under the Joint Plan of Action because most states on the IAEA board–on the basis of statements they made during the board meeting last week–clearly support the results of Iran’s diplomacy with the six.

The IAEA’s Authority 

Does the IAEA have the authority to do the work? Right after the Iran deal was closed in Geneva, questions in Vienna arose about that because, as I have said above, the IAEA is not a party to this agreement. The agreement itself is based on voluntary commitments by Iran and the six powers–not legal obligations.

As of last week’s board meeting, it wasn’t clear how the IAEA would proceed. Director General Yukiya Amano had proposed internally convening an extraordinary board meeting pertaining to the IAEA’s response to the Joint Plan of Action. Less clear last week was whether the IAEA would inform the board of its intentions or instead seek its formal approval.

In any case, it would appear that the agency has the authority go do the work which Iran and the powers assign to it under the agreement, as Article III A. 5 of the IAEA Statute tells us:

The Agency is authorized… to establish and administer safeguards designed to ensure that special fissionable and other materials, services, equipment, facilities, and information made available by the Agency or at its request or under its supervision or control are not used in such a way as to further any military purpose; and to apply safeguards, at the request of the parties, to any bilateral or multilateral arrangement, or at the request of a State, to any of that State’s activities in the field of atomic energy.

 PMD Reporting

The Joint Plan of Action says that the IAEA and the Joint Commission are to cooperate to “facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern” but it does not make specific reference to “Possible Military Dimensions” in Iran’s nuclear program, which has been the subject of IAEA formal reporting to the board of governors since November 2011. The IAEA-Iran Framework for Cooperation likewise states that Iran will “resolve all present and past issues.”

Iran has not provided the IAEA answers to any key PMD-related questions since 2009. It is unlikely that all of these questions will be answered during the next six months. How much information the Iran gives to the IAEA will no doubt be subject to negotiation during this period along the lines of what the IAEA and Iran agreed upon on November 11 in Tehran. At the end of a year, assuming that six months will not suffice to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Iran conundrum, perhaps the biggest challenge will then appear: If we assume that Iran implements all other conditions of the Joint Plan of Action, save divulging what may be compromising details about its previous nuclear activities, how much about Iran’s most sensitive nuclear past must the IAEA know for the six powers to make a deal with Iran looking into the future?

 
 

Because neither side has disclosed details, we don’t know for sure whether the roadmap Iran proposed to the P5+1 powers in Geneva in mid-October includes the future of the IR-40 reactor project. Iran’s counterparts have good reason to make sure that the unfinished heavy water reactor is on a short list of must-resolve issues. Once it is completed, Iran will have an installation that can generate annually in its irradiated fuel between 5 and 10 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium. That’s enough for one nuclear weapon a year.

The powers don’t want the IR-40 to make plutonium that Iran then separates. Iran wants a versatile and safe research reactor. These issues could be reconciled by diplomacy. The P5+1 could help Iran finish the reactor if Iran provides credible assurances it won’t access the plutonium.

Since 2006, the powers have served notice to Iran in United Nations Security Council resolutions that both the IR-40 project and Iran’s uranium enrichment program are proliferation threats.  The resolutions ordered Iran to suspend both endeavors. Iran has ignored the resolutions on both counts. It continues to enrich uranium and to build the IR-40.

Unlike Iran’s enrichment plants, which are operating routinely, once the IR-40 is completed, operation of the reactor will pose safety concerns. Some of these are related to a raft of technical challenges that Iran must overcome in manufacturing the nuclear fuel for the reactor.

In part because of these issues, the IR-40 will not be finished and operated for awhile, most likely not before 2015, and possibly not for as long as Iran remains under international sanctions.

This project has been delayed at least four times since it got underway during  the 1990s. The most recent delay was revealed to the IAEA in August during a physical inventory verification. A number of items were still not in place, including cooling pumps, instrumentation and control systems, and sufficient uranium fuel.

Iran is behind on this project because it is under sanctions enforced by global export controls on know-how, materials, and equipment. Without these measures, the reactor would probably be operating today. Nearly everywhere else worldwide, research reactor projects like the IR-40 have access to off-the-shelf nuclear-grade items conforming to international safety and quality specifications. Iran is cut off from these sources.

Fuel Fabrication and  Testing 

As of September, Iran had made about 1/5 of the amount of fuel it had predicted in June it would make by then.

Iran faces two main challenges here: fabrication of fuel to quality standards, and testing of the fabricated fuel to make sure it will perform safely and as expected.

Fuel fabrication is difficult for several reasons. Iran chose zirconium for cladding material instead of much softer and more malleable aluminum. This will permit Iran to operate the reactor at higher temperatures and with higher fuel burnup–but only if Iran masters the difficulties of extruding less-ductile zirconium tubes. Add to this the difficulties in making the fuel itself. The natural uranium fuel pellets are produced in Iran in batch mode using mixers, which must be precisely controlled to ensure homogeneity, as well as sintering ovens, which must be carefully operated to guarantee a constant temperature profile and other technical parameters. Precise control is essential to make sure that the thousands of fuel pellets loaded into the  IR-40′s core are identical. If they are not, or if tubing is not precisely machined and welded, slight irregularities in geometry can result in deformation and loss of fuel integrity, possibly leading to a serious core accident.

In virtually all nuclear programs today, national regulators would not permit a reactor to operate using specially-designed fuel, produced by people with relatively little experience, without first carrying out a comprehensive fuel testing program. Tests would measure the behavior of fuel under irradiation, focusing on such factors as high temperature, chemical interactions, and both thermal and mechanical stresses. The cladding would be tested for irradiation growth, bowing, swelling, and resistance to fission gas pressure.

The fuel assemblies for IR-40 are uniquely designed long-tube bundles that do not fit into any other reactors in Iran and represent a modification of a Russian fuel design. Iran currently has no access to Russian experts to assist it in making and testing the fuel. So far, Iran has conducted limited irradiation tests of fuel assembly components only, not complete assemblies. Because of sanctions, Iran can’t test the fuel abroad.

What to do?

In theory, Iran could rely on testing individual segments of the fuel in Iran. Given Iran’s current lack of access to foreign expertise, this would not be ideal, but Iran could obtain considerable data that would be useful in determining whether the fuel made in Iran would be safe and perform as calculations would expect.

In May, the IAEA reported to its Board of Governors that Iran disclosed its intention to begin hot fuel testing in Q1 of 2014, but provided no details.

Iran currently has no management system to carry out such tests, little competency and experience, and insufficient infrastructure. The IAEA is aware of these deficits because its personnel have been to the IR-40 project on numerous occasions, including in 2010 when the IAEA carried out a formal review of Iran’s resources for performing experiments and tests which would be relevant for this project. Iran has not disclosed to the IAEA or other outsiders where it plans to carry out testing of the IR-40 fuel.

A decision by the Iran Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI), which is in charge of the IR-40 project, to operate the reactor without prior comprehensive fuel testing would challenge the authority of the Iran Nuclear Regulatory Authority (INRA). Its mission includes “regulatory review and assessment… prior to authorization… to determine whether the operating organization’s submissions demonstrate that the facility complies with the safety objectives, principles, criteria, and regulations approved by INRA.” Presumably, that would include preparations for commissioning a reactor of unique design loaded with fuel that was produced by a fabricator without a demonstrated performance track record.

Were Iran to systematically carry out comprehensive quality-assurance tests for all the hand-made fuel it is producing for IR-40, detection of any irregularities should delay commissioning of this project further since Iran must first identify and rectify any quality control problems. Should Iran instead assume the risk of commissioning and operating the IR-40 without taking such care, that course of action should prompt objections–both in Iran and elsewhere–that the AEOI is proceeding without heeding advice from the IAEA, which is based on international good practices.

What should Iran and the P5+1 do? The best course of action would be to include IR-40 commissioning in the basket of issues subject to a negotiated settlement. The powers don’t want Iran operating a reactor to accumulate weapons-grade plutonium in spent fuel, which it could reprocess. Iran needs a research reactor that it can use for a variety of civilian applications and that Iran can be confident will be safe to operate.

As part of a negotiated comprehensive settlement with the P5+1, Iran could get access to foreign expertise to realize its ambitions to have a versatile research reactor. The P5+1 might agree to help Iran replace the IR-40 with a light-water reactor better suited to produce the medical isotopes Iran says it wants to produce. Should Iran–like a number of other countries–want instead to have a heavy-water reactor to maximize production of neutrons for research (and given Iran’s investment in heavy-water production infrastructure, Iran may well insist on this), the P5+1 might consent to help Iran finish the IR-40 project–provided that Iran agree that IAEA safeguards would apply in perpetuity on both the IR-40 and its inventory of nuclear material, and that the irradiated fuel will not be reprocessed.