Uranium Conversion Facility
In September 1995, China's ambassador to Iran admited that China was selling uranium enrichment technology to Iran, and in early 1996 China informed the IAEA of the proposed sale of a uranium conversion facility to Iran. The United States and China reached agreement in October 1997 that China would halt assistance to Iran's nuclear efforts. China pledged to halt cooperation on a uranium conversion facility (UCF) and to forego any new nuclear cooperation with Iran, but said it would complete cooperation on two nuclear projects: a small research reactor and a zirconium production facility at Esfahan that Iran would use to produce cladding for reactor fuel. According to some reports, at that time the UCF plant was close to completion and was anticipated to be operational by 2000. Some reports suggested that by that time Chinese assistance had enabled Iran to complete construction of the UCF plant. In December 1998, US intelligence reports were publicly cited as having revealed that two Russian nuclear research institutes were actively negotiating to sell Iran a 40-megawatt heavy-water research reactor and a uranium-conversion facility.
The UCF was a facility declared to the IAEA in 2000 and subsequently under construction at Esfahan. In February 2003, before the top officials of the Ministry of Science, Iranian President Mohammad Khatanmi reportedly announced a program for a complete nuclear fuel cycle, which was to include the UCF in Esfahan. At the UCF Facility in Esfahan, using the yellow cake prepared at Ardekan, a number of by-products including uranium hexofloride (UF6), metallic uranium, and uranium oxide (UO2) were produced. These were later used for uranium enrichment.
The IAEA received preliminary design information on the UCF under construction at ENTC in July 2000, and had been carrying out continuous design information verification (DIV) since then. In that design information, the facility was described as being intended for the conversion of uranium ore concentrate into UF6 for enrichment outside Iran, and for the subsequent conversion (at the UCF) of the enriched UF6 into low enriched UO2 enriched uranium metal and depleted uranium metal.
In a letter to the IAEA dated 9 October 2003 from Mr. E. Khalilipour, Vice President of the AEOI, Iran provided information that had not been provided earlier on research activities carried out on uranium conversion processes, including acknowledgement of laboratory and bench scale experiments. Specifically, Iran confirmed that, between 1981 and 1993, it had carried out at the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Centre (ENTC) bench scale preparation of UO2 and, at the Tehran Nuclear Research Centre (TNRC), bench scale preparation of ammonium uranyl carbonate (AUC), UO3, UF4 and UF6. In the same letter, Iran further acknowledged that, contrary to its previous statements, practically all of the materials important to uranium conversion had been produced in laboratory and bench scale experiments (in kilogram quantities) between 1981 and 1993 without having been reported to the IAEA. These activities were carried out at TNRC and ENTC.
In addition to the issues associated with the testing of UCF processes, the IAEA had previously raised with Iran questions related to the purpose and use of nuclear material to be produced at UCF, such as uranium metal. In its letter of 21 October 2003, Iran acknowledged that the uranium metal had been intended not only for the production of shielding material, as previously stated, but also for use in the laser enrichment programme.
In the meetings held between 27 October and 1 November 2003, Iran provided additional information about these experiments. According to Iranian officials, the experiments took place between 1988 and 1992, and involved pressed or sintered UO2 pellets prepared at ENTC using depleted uranium that had been exempted from safeguards in 1978. The capsules containing the pellets had been irradiated in TRR in connection with a project to produce fission product isotopes of molybdenum, iodine and xenon. The plutonium separation was carried out at TNRC in three shielded glove boxes, which, according to Iran, were dismantled in 1992 and later stored in a warehouse at ENTC along with related equipment. Iran stated that these experiments had been carried out to learn about the nuclear fuel cycle, and to gain experience in reprocessing chemistry.
On 1 November 2003, Iran agreed to submit all nuclear material accountancy reports, and design information for ENTC and JHL, covering these activities.
An IAEA Report dated 10 November 2003 found that Iran had failed to report the production of UO2 targets at ENTC and their irradiation in TRR, the subsequent processing of those targets, including the separation of plutonium, the production and transfer of resulting waste, and the storage of unprocessed irradiated targets at TNRC. It also found that Iran had failed to provide design information for the facilities at ENTC and TNRC involved in the production of UO2, UO3, UF4, UF6 and AUC.
The UCF project was not one of the projects Iran agreed to suspend voluntarily. The IAEA was informed in February 2004 that Iran would start the Esfahan ICF project in March 2004. In early 2004 AEOI Director Reza Aqazadeh announced that the Esfahan UCF project was in the experimental stage and that the center would soon begin experimental production. He stated that the Esfahan UCF center would produce all the raw materials needed for fuel cycle activities, including hexafluoride uranium, metal uranium, and uranium oxide.
It was reported by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a anti-government Iranian politial action group linked to organizations on the US terror watch list, on 9 March 2004 that Alireza Jafarzadeh, who disclosed in August 2002 Iran's facilities at Natanz and Arak, said Iranian leaders decided at a recent meeting to seek an atom bomb "at all costs" and begin enriching uranium at secret plants. "They set a timetable to get a bomb by the end of 2005 at the latest," the former spokesman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran said. "They will heavily rely on smaller secret enrichment sites at Karaj, Esfahan and at other places."
On 12 June 2004 Iran rejected European demands that it freeze additional parts of its atomic program, including the heavy-water reactor. "We will not accept any new obligation," Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said at a news conference. "If anyone asks us to give up Esfahan industries to change yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride gas or to give up heavy-water facilities in Arak, we cannot accept such an extra demand that is contradictory to our legal rights."
Iran informed the Agency that it was conducting hot tests at UCF that would generate UF6 product. One such test, which generated about 30-35 kg of UF6, was conducted between May and June 2004. In March 2004, Iran began testing the process lines involving the conversion of UOC into UO2 and UF4, and UF4 into UF6. As of June 2004, 40 to 45 kg of UF6 had been produced therefrom. A larger test, involving the conversion of 37 tons of yellowcake into UF4, was initiated in August 2004.
On 18 June 2004 the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution submitted by France, Germany and Britain, that called on Iran to freeze the construction of the heavy water reactor at Arak and the conversion of uranium in Esfahan.
On 19 September 2004 the IAEA board of governors adopted a resolution Saturday that it was necessary for Iran to suspend all enrichment-related activities immediately. Iran promised before to comply, but had only partially suspended its uranium enrichment program and never for very long.
On 21 September 2004 Iran informed the IAEA that it had started converting uranium into the gas needed for enrichment purposes, a process that had sparked renewed concerns about a possible bomb program. Reza Aghazadeh, Iran's Vice-President and energy chief said the Islamic Republic was already converting part a large amount of raw uranium into the gas (hexafluoride) used by nuclear centrifuges to make enriched uranium. This larger test involving 37 tonnes of yellowcake had been planned for August/September 2004. If all 37 tonnes of yellowcake were converted, that would produce enough uranium metal that, when enriched, would yield about 100 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, enough to make up to five atomic bombs.
According to Iran's declaration of 14 October 2004, 22.5 tons of the 37 tons of yellowcake had been fed into the process and that approximately 2 tons of UF4, and 17.5 tons of uranium as intermediate products and waste, had been produced. There was no indication as of that date of UF6 having been produced during this later campaign.
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