July 29, 2016 | Memo
Iran’s Breakout Time Drops Below Administration Benchmarks
Iran plans to manufacture and install additional advanced centrifuges at its Natanz facility in about 10 years, substantially boosting the country’s uranium-enrichment capability, according to a confidential document leaked last week by the Associated Press. According to the plan – which Iran reportedly shared with the IAEA six months ago – Tehran’s breakout time will shrink to a few weeks or less.
Furthermore, days after those revelations, Iranian officials said that they are prepared to swiftly reinstall dismantled centrifuges should their counterparts not fulfill their commitments under the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, even said that his country could restore its pre-JCPOA enrichment capacity within 45 days.
Prior to the JCPOA’s implementation, Iran had 15,420 IR-1 centrifuges installed at the Fuel Enrichment Plant in Natanz. Out of these, 9,156 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges were enriching uranium, and another 1,000 second-generation IR-2m centrifuges were installed but not yet operating. Under the JCPOA, Tehran dismantled all but 5,060 IR-1s at the facility.
The JCPOA left the removed centrifuges intact and in storage at Natanz, together with all relevant feed equipment, piping, cooling systems, and electronics. Given the Iranians’ experience in manufacturing and installing over 20,000 centrifuges of various types, it is plausible that they could, as Salehi warned, reinstall and operationalize all of the dismantled centrifuges within a 45-day timeframe.
With Iran’s 9,000 operational IR-1s and 1,000 installed IR-2ms prior to the JCPOA, Tehran could enrich a bomb’s worth of uranium to weapons grade in four to five months. With all 15,000 IR-1s installed, the breakout time would fall to three months or less depending on the number of IR-2ms installed (assuming Iran starts with natural uranium feed).
The JCPOA’s limit of 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) was calculated to put Iran’s breakout time at one year. However, as Russia has acknowledged, there is excess LEU in Iran above the 300 kilograms allowed by the nuclear deal. Breakout time diminishes if Tehran is allowed to continue to grow its LEU stock further, such as by keeping part of its stockpile overseas (as it did recently with heavy water in Oman). Unless sold or transferred in ownership, the LEU remains part of Iran’s nuclear material inventory. At current production rates of around 100 kilograms of additional LEU per month, even without installing any additional centrifuges, Tehran’s breakout time will be reduced to half a year within just a few months – far below the U.S. administration’s promised one-year breakout time.
Salehi’s deputy has also stated that the Islamic Republic can increase its enrichment capacity 20-fold to 100,000 SWU in just a year and a half. That figure may be an exaggeration, as Iran would still need to manufacture large quantities of advanced centrifuges to achieve that ambitious goal. It is, however, plausible that Tehran could achieve technical readiness after five years, when it completes its small cascade tests of advanced IR-8 centrifuges as permitted under the JCPOA.
Under the deal, the Iranians can begin manufacturing advanced centrifuges at the end of year eight of the deal, and start installing them in large quantities starting from year 10 – numbers that fit the details as reported by the Associated Press. At this stage, Iran can also choose between IR-2m and IR-8 centrifuges. To achieve the stated 100,000 SWU capacity, Iran needs to have 20,000 to 25,000 IR-2m or 7,000 to 10,000 IR-8 centrifuges, which is technically possible when the remaining constraints related to centrifuge manufacturing and testing begin to expire after eight years.
A number of unknowns remain regarding Iran’s enrichment capacities. One important factor is the total number of IR-2m centrifuges – not just those dismantled from Natanz but those already manufactured or ready to be assembled and installed. For the international community to prevent an Iranian breakout, more detailed reporting from the IAEA will be indispensable. Unfortunately, since the November 2013 interim agreement and especially since the start of this year, the IAEA has further reduced the amount of qualitative and quantitative information in its reports on Iran.
In response, a group of Democratic senators wrote to President Obama earlier this month urging him to make more information available on the status of the JCPOA’s implementation. If, as stated, the administration believes the nuclear deal provides an unprecedented level of monitoring and verification of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, it should favor greater transparency to prove it.
Dr. Olli Heinonen is a senior advisor on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of its Department of Safeguards.