In a televised speech on January 1, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Tehran had imported 200 metric tons of yellowcake uranium and would import another 120 tons at an unspecified future date. The imports are permitted by the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but nonetheless significantly exceed Iran’s needs for natural (that is, unenriched) uranium over the next 15 years. Iran’s import of such high levels of uranium suggests it may be stockpiling uranium to reach nuclear breakout before the deal’s initial limitations expire in 2031.
The JCPOA permits Iran to buy natural uranium to “replenish” its stocks as it sells enriched uranium on the international market. To date, Iran has had difficulties locating a buyer for its enriched uranium stocks – unsurprising, given the current excess of commercially available enriched uranium. This, however, has not stopped Iran from buying and stockpiling more yellowcake.
While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quarterly reports do not provide any information on the quantities of Iran’s exports of low-enriched uranium, Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi announced in December 2015 that his country would export around 9 metric tons of its enriched uranium to Russia in exchange for 137 metric tons of natural uranium. In addition, in December 2015, Kazakhstan supplied 60 metric tons to Iran at the request of the JCPOA’s Joint Commission, as part of Iran’s “compensation” for removing its excess low-enriched uranium above the JCPOA limits. Taken together, those totals match Rouhani’s figures from last week.
Iran’s natural uranium acquisitions are not purely open-market commercial transactions as envisioned in the JCPOA. Norway funded $6 million of the shipment from Kazakhstan, which exceeds current market prices of uranium concentrates. This further raises questions over whether Iran paid for the shipment of the remaining 140 metric tons of yellowcake from Russia, or if there are other understandings or subsidies involved to sweeten the deal for the Islamic Republic.
The P5+1 partners that negotiated the nuclear deal should explain the rationale for the Joint Committee accepting Iran’s importation of the first 200 metric tons, and potentially another 120 metric tons, of yellowcake when Iran has no need for such material during the next decade. Russia is under contract to supply fuel for the Bushehr civilian nuclear reactors, and the JCPOA obligates the international community to supply fuel for the Arak reactor and other research reactors.
Additionally, Tehran domestically produces uranium from its mines at Gacchin and Saghand. While the IAEA started monitoring yellowcake production from Iranian mines in 2014, none of the Agency’s quarterly reports have provided any information on the amounts of uranium produced. A recent OECD/IAEA “Red Book” entitled Uranium 2016: Resources, Production and Demand, however, revealed that Tehran is indeed producing and stockpiling uranium from these mines. By 2014, Iran had produced 66.3 metric tons of yellowcake. The Red Book estimates that Iran produced 35 metric tons of uranium in 2015 and will increase production output by 90 to 118 metric tons per year by 2020.
Iran submitted its long-term research and development plans to the IAEA in January 2016 as part of its commitments in provisionally adopting the Additional Protocol, as called for by the deal. The parties to the JCPOA have also agreed to the plan. Even though they remain confidential, there is no plausible way those plans could justify the acquisition of several hundred tons of yellowcake.
Given the complexity of the JCPOA’s terms, transparency is necessary to ensure strict and meaningful enforcement. That should entail releasing Iran’s research and development plans to lay out its current and future nuclear needs, and whether these plans impact the JCPOA’s parameters for a one-year breakout time.
The P5+1 – and Norway – should explain what measures have been put in place to ensure that the yellowcake will not be enriched above 3.67 percent and that the uranium will not be used for reprocessing without their consent, even when the JCPOA limits ultimately expire.
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.
 Depending on the characteristics of the uranium enrichment process, production of 9 tons uranium enriched up to 3.67 percent, requires 120-130 tons of yellow cake.