Safeguards frustration

17 November 2009

Inspectors still have lots of questions for Iran, even after full access to the newly revealed enrichment facility at Qom. Meanwhile, the country is being slow to agree a fuel deal and Syria is ignoring questions on its programs.


Experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) travelled to Qom within one month of Iran revealing the underground facility's existence, and the agency reported to its board of governors yesterday.


After access to all areas it was verified as a uranium centrifuge plant in an advanced stage of construction with equipment in place to support up to 3000 centrifuges. No nuclear material has entered the plant.


Officially known as the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, it is intended to work in conjunction with the main facility at Natanz and provide back-up enrichment capability in case of attack. The country said it took the decision to build in the second half of 2007, but the IAEA questioned this: satellite imagery shows some activity there between 2002 and 2004, with work restarting in 2006. Cetain governments allege that design work for Fordow started in 2006. The size of the Fordow plant would allow Iran to take low-enriched uranium from Natanz and further enrich it to weapons grade.

Research reactor fuel
Iran is yet to approve a deal to refuel a research reactor in Tehran. France and Russia have agreed to cooperate to manufacture a batch 19.5% enriched fuel for the unit using Iran's own <5% enriched uranium as feedstock. This material could be routed via Turkey, but Iran is delaying official acceptance of the offer. 


Stonewalling from Syria


The IAEA reported that Syria still declines to engage in discussions concerning uranium particles found at the Al Kibar site after Israeli warplanes destroyed a mystery facility in 2007. The uranium does not match any in Syria's declared possession but the country maintains it came from Israeli munitions.




In the measured language required of an intergovernmental body the IAEA said that Iran's late declaration of Fordow "reduces the level of confidence in the absence of other

nuclear facilities under construction." It also "gives rise to questions" about possible further facilities.


Another thing came to light recently in the form of 600 50-litre drums of heavy water for the IR-40 reactor under construction at Arak. The IAEA wants to know the origin of the water, which does not seem to have been manufactured in Iran. Separately, Iran answered a design questionnaire on Arak but did not include details of its fuel assemblies despite IAEA requests.


The complaints


Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which requires countries to declare their nuclear acitivites and allow inspections at declared sites. It has also signed safeguards agreements, in common with all NPT signatories, and is meant to inform the IAEA when the decision to build a new nuclear facility is taken and supply design information as it develops.


Iran's late declaration of Fordow is "inconsistent" with these obligations and "does not contribute to the building of confidence." It was the exposure of enrichment at Natanz by a dissident group that began the Iranian nuclear saga in 2003.


Iran has also signed the NPT's Additional Protocol, which grants the IAEA power to make spot-checks anywhere in the country, but this is not being implemented. The IAEA complained that unless this changes it "will not be in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities in Iran."


Lastly, the IAEA is frustrated that Iran has refused to engage on certain allegations made by other governments that appear to show a military dimension to Iran's early nuclear program. This stalemate has gone on for over "well over a year."


Orders from the UN Security Council to stop enrichment and heavy-water related have been consistently defied.

In recent months politicians such as UK prime minister Gordon Brown have called for a new deal on nuclear technology under which violations of NPT obligations would trigger strong immediate action from the Security Council.