Iran's decision to begin enriching uranium at a fortified underground facility marks a significant advancement in its nuclear weapons program and is another display of defiance toward the international community. In this analysis, LIGNET assesses the significance of the enrichment at the Fordow underground nuclear plant and gives its exclusive prediction of how many nuclear weapons Iran could produce and fast it could build one using the Fordow facility.
Fordow is a formerly secret nuclear facility located near the holy city of Qom, built into a mountain to protect it from airstrikes. U.S. intelligence was unaware of the facility until about 2009 when it was close to beginning operations. The discovery of Fordow was a stunning revelation at the time and led the International Atomic Energy Agency to state in a report that it “reduces the level of confidence” and “gives rise to questions” about other nuclear facilities in Iran that may be undeclared.
Iran has admitted that Fordow is intended for enriching uranium using gas centrifuge machines that spin uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds to increase the proportion of fissile uranium-235. Iran originally claimed Fordow was built as a back-up enrichment facility to its Natanz centrifuge plant. However, Fordow’s small size raises serious questions about its actual purpose. Fordow can only accommodate about 3,000 centrifuge machines, too few to efficiently enrich uranium to the reactor-grade 3 to 5 percent level (known as low enriched uranium or LEU). However, 3,000 centrifuges is an ideal number to further enrich Iran’s LEU stockpile to weapons grade.
Iran’s plan to begin enrichment at Fordow is not a surprise. After the Fordow facility was revealed in 2009, Iranian officials provided the IAEA with design plans as well as a series of confusing and contradictory explanations for the facility. Last fall, Iran asked the IAEA to remove protective seals from two LEU cylinders at Natanz for transfer to Fordow. Last October, the IAEA was permitted for the first time to visit Fordow and observe its centrifuge assemblies.
Iran now claims that it will use the Fordow plant to enrich uranium to approximately 19.75 percent U-235 for use in the Tehran research reactor, and has moved a small centrifuge that had been enriching at this level from the Natanz facility to Fordow. Most international experts are skeptical of this claim because there is no need to enrich uranium for a medical reactor in a bomb-proof facility and Fordow could quickly be reconfigured to enrich LEU to weapons-grade uranium.
Although Iran had said several months ago that it intended to begin uranium enrichment at Fordow, its decision to proceed now is most likely related to the spike in tensions over tightening U.S. and EU sanctions. Iran is likely worried that the prospects of a military strike against its Natanz nuclear facility are increasing and wants to protect its ability to make weapons fuel. By starting to uranium enrichment at Fordow, Iran is also demonstrating its defiance of the international community and is signaling that it intends to make few if any concessions if multilateral talks on its nuclear program resume.
Fordow’s startup will raise serious concerns in Israel, where political leaders are weighing a strike on Iran’s nuclear program. Indications that Fordow is converting uranium to weapons grade could cross a red line for Israel and lead to airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
The Fordow nuclear facility is located about 300 feet underground and would be difficult to destroy from the air. But bunker-busting bombs could do considerable damage to the facility’s entry tunnels, possibly making it inaccessible.
Israeli air strikes could also cripple other facilities necessary for Iran's nuclear program, including missile facilities, fuel fabrication plants, uranium conversion facilities, heavy water plants, and a heavy water reactor that is under construction.
The IAEA reported last November that Iran had 4,922 kg of low enriched uranium. Most experts believe that 1,000 kg of LEU is sufficient to produce enough weapons-grade uranium at critical mass (about 52 kg) for one weapon if further enriched to weapons grade (about 90 percent U-235.) Given Iran’s continuing efforts to make LEU at Natanz and factoring in uncertainty of how efficiently it could produce weapons-grade uranium, LIGNET believes that Iran probably will have enough LEU in 2012 to produce four to five nuclear weapons.
If Iran decides to begin to make nuclear weapons fuel, it probably will do so at Fordow, which appears to have been designed as a heavily protected facility to quickly enrich uranium to weapons grade. (This assumes Iran does not have other undiscovered enrichment facilities.) For now, IAEA monitors probably can ensure that Iran does not engage in weapons-grade enrichment at Fordow. A decision by Iran to deny UN inspectors access to Fordow would be a sign that Tehran has decided to start producing weapons fuel.
LIGNET believes, assuming weaponization research is complete, that Iran probably could produce enough weapons-grade uranium at Fordow for one weapon and complete fuel fabrication in as little as six months.
However, even if Iran does not begin producing weapons grade uranium at Fordow in the short term, the startup of this facility will provide Iranian scientists with valuable knowledge about enrichment that will make it easier for Iran to begin weapons-grade nuclear fuel production at a later date.
The startup of the Fordow nuclear reactor is a destabilizing development since it marks the beginning of operations of uranium enrichment at a hardened facility that appears specially designed to manufacture nuclear weapons fuel. This development raises the stakes over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and moves Israel closer to a decision on whether to launch an air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Also check out:
Erratic Iranian Behavior Points to a Volatile and Dangerous Year
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LIGNET Editor Fleitz: We Cannot Risk Miscalculation on Iran
(January 5, 2012)
Iranian Economy Struggles, But WMD Programs Advance
(December 27, 2011)