Iran, Powers Make Limited Progress at Nuclear Talks; Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Remains Focus, But Lasers May Bring Iran the Bomb

The construction of new facilities at the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center, once an undeclared laser uranium enrichment site, has allowed Iran to engage in more advanced laser work. The notated Google Earth photo of Lashkar Ab’ad, above, is from the Institute for Science and International Security. Laser uranium enrichment is a subtle aspect of the nuclear talks. Iran has pledged to forgo laser enrichment activity, but if it is still engaged in that work secretly, detecting it will be difficult.

According to a January 18, 2015 Reuters article entitled, “Iran, Powers Make ‘Limited’ Progress at Nuclear Talks, To Meet in February”, five days of diplomacy in Geneva and Paris between the P5+1 (US, United Kingdom, France, Russia China, and Germany) and Iran ended without an agreement. It included meetings between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Hope remains among diplomats that a political understanding can be reached by the end of March and a comprehensive deal can be reached by June 30, 2015. Reuters quoted Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and negotiator Abbas Araqchi stated the discussions were “good” and “extensive.” French negotiator Nicholas de la Riviere was quoted as saying “the mood was good,” but he also said, “I do not think we made a lot of progress.”

The later view expressed by de la Riviere perhaps best described the situation. The January meeting’s outcome was disappointing given hopes raised in December 2014 that the talks would progress faster and more smoothly. In December, negotiators even created a catalog outlining areas of potential accord and differing approaches to remaining disputes. Among the catalog’s requirements, much of Iran’s enriched uranium would be shipped out of the country. The administration of US President Barack Obama wanted to reduce Tehran’s ability to make nuclear arms by committing it to ship to Russia much of the enriched uranium needed for weapons. However, diplomats are now debating how much enriched uranium to leave Iran. Iran has a stockpile for several bombs, and the US wants cuts well below that level. Other issues being debated apparently include the size of Iran’s future enrichment output. The US wants it cut in half, leaving Tehran with about 4,500 of its existing uranium enrichment centrifuges, or less if it replaces them with advanced models. Tehran is ready for a reduction of around 20%, or about 8,000 machines. Issues remaining to be resolved include action on Iran’s underground Fordow (Shahid Alimohammadi) Fuel Enrichment Plant and its incomplete Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor (IR-40). The P5+1 wants Fordow repurposed to a non-enrichment function. Fordow is allegedly impervious to airstrikes. The P5+1 wants Arak re-engineered from a model by which it could yearly produce plutonium for several nuclear bombs to a less proliferation-prone one.

In the meantime, Iran is still complying with restrictions on research and development required under the November 24, 2014 extension. According to documents outlining the extension, these provisions are designed to resolve ambiguities regarding permitted and prohibited research activities, and especially “limit research and development on advanced centrifuges that move the machines to the next level of development.” Iran agreed not to test the IR-5 centrifuge with uranium hexafluoride gas. Iran also agreed not to pursue testing of the IR-6 centrifuge on a cascade level with uranium gas, or semi-industrial scale testing of the IR-2M. Iran also agreed not to complete installation of the IR-8 centrifuge, which is only partially installed at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. The IAEA will also have greater access to Iran’s centrifuge production sites under the extension. According to the terms, the agency’s inspections visits will double and be conducted with very little notice. The goal of limiting research and development and creating regular access to monitor centrifuge production facilities was to prevent Iran from refining and mass-producing efficient machines that would allow it to rapidly enrich material for bombs.

Discussing the November 24, 2014 extension, US Secretary of State John Kerry said “We would be fools to walk away from a situation where the breakout time [for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon] has already been expanded rather than narrowed and the world is safer because the program is in place.” He noted skeptics who predicted the interim agreement [Joint Plan of Action] would collapse and Iran would break its promises were proven wrong. He further stated “Guess what? The interim agreement wasn’t violated, Iran has held up its end of the bargain, and the sanctions regime has remained intact.” Through the nuclear negotiation process, the US and its P5+1 partners have focused most on centrifuge uranium enrichment. However, Iran’s nuclear program does not fit into a single, very clear and well defined picture of centrifuge enrichment. Iran has the technological know-how and the human resources to take its nuclear program in many different directions. It puts into the question the choice not to give added attention to other paths to uranium enrichment. Iran has a proven capability to engage in uranium enrichment using laser isotope separation. If Iran’s work with lasers is not properly addressed before the end of the negotiation process, the world may soon face a very advanced, nuclear capable Iran.

On Centrifugal Uranium Enrichment, Iran Is Compliant

What best supports the argument proffered by Kerry and others that Tehran’s intentions on the nuclear issue may be positive is the significant effort Iran has made to comply with its agreements on centrifugal uranium enrichment. Reviewing that compliance, one would discover that the January 20, 2014 IAEA Report stated Iran halted production of near-20% enriched uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) and ceased operating its interconnected centrifuges that were enriching to 20% UF6. The February 20, 2014 IAEA Report said Iran was using the four cascades at Fordow to enrich uranium to only 5%. Regarding its stockpile of enriched uranium, in the July 20, 2014 IAEA Report, it was explained Iran completed the process of converting half of its stockpile of 20% enriched UF6 gas (~104 kg) to uranium oxide powder. Iran’s dilution of half of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium was confirmed in the April 2014 IAEA Report.

With respect to research and development, in the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report, it was verified that Iran was continuing its safeguarded research and development practices at Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant and was not using the research to accumulate uranium as it tested advanced models. Iran submitted details on site selection for 16 nuclear power plants to the IAEA, its initial plans for 10 future enrichment sites, and a light water reactor. Those plans included: descriptions of buildings located on nuclear sites, the scale of operations for each location, and information on uranium mines and mills.

On source materials, a May 23, 2014 IAEA Report explained that Iran granted the agency access to the Gchine Mine, the Saghand Mine and the Ardakan Uranium Production Plant. Iran provided the IAEA with information about source material on April 20, according to the May 23, 2014 IAEA Report. Iran also submitted an updated Design Information Questionnaire for the reactor at Arak (IR-40) on February 12, 2014, according to the IAEA’s February 20, 2014 Report. On May 5, 2014, IAEA and Iranian officials met to discuss a safeguards approach with the IAEA for the Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor, and according to the IAEA’s June 20, 2014 Report, Iran reached an agreement with the agency on the safeguards.

Regarding IAEA access and monitoring, the requirement for Iran was to allow daily IAEA inspector access at Fordow and Natanz, including scheduled and unannounced inspections and access to surveillance information daily. As of its February 20, 2014 Report, the IAEA installed surveillance measures at Natanz and Fordow to facilitate daily monitoring and reached an agreement on facilitating daily access. (Prior to the Joint Plan of Action, the IAEA had visited Fordow on a weekly basis, and Natanz on a biweekly basis.) The February 20, 2014 Report noted the IAEA made its first monthly visit to the Arak Heavy Water Reactor on February 12, 2014. It visited Arak between February 3, 2014 and February 7, 2014, to inspect the centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production and workshops, and storage facilities.

Issues concerning mines and mills were covered by May 23, 2014 IAEA Report. It explained that Iran granted the IAEA access to the Gchine and Saghand Uranium Mines and the Arkadan Milling Facility. While Iran was required to provide figures that would allow the IAEA to verify that centrifuge production will be dedicated to the replacement of damaged machines, the IAEA was granted access to Iran’s centrifuge workshops and facilities, allowing it to collect such data firsthand. Regarding the capping of Iran’s 5% enriched UF6 stockpile, the November 24, 2014 IAEA Report on implementation of the Joint Plan of Action indicated that Iran’s stockpile of UF6 gas was 7,400 kg, below January’s level of 7,560 kg.

Iran has complied with agreements to refrain from certain actions with its program. In a January 18, 2014 letter to the IAEA, Iran pledged not to engage in reprocessing or build a reprocessing facility over the six months of the deal. Then, the January 20, 2014 IAEA Report confirmed reprocessing was not taking place at the Tehran Research Reactor or the Iodine and Xenon Radioisotope Production Facility (MIX Facility). The January 20, 2014 IAEA Report confirmed Iran also has not installed a reconversion line to reconvert uranium oxide powder to 20% UF6.

With regard to Natanz, Iran has refrained from making any further advances of its activities there. According to a February 20, 2014 IAEA Report, Iran had not installed any new centrifuges and was not feeding UF6 into the roughly half the centrifuges at Natanz that were already installed but were not engaged in uranium enrichment.

Concerning Fordow, Iran has also refrained from further advancing the plant’s activities. The February 20, 2014 IAEA verified that Iran has not installed any new centrifuges, and is not feeding UF6 into the three quarters at Fordow that have also been installed but not engaged in uranium enrichment. Additionally, the cascades have not been interconnected. To the extent Iran has replaced centrifuges, the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report indicated that Iran limited itself to replacing existing centrifuges with centrifuges of the same type. The report made clear that surveillance has been set up to monitor any changes.

On Arak, the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report said Iran had not commissioned the reactor and had not conducted any activities to further it. Iran, as promised, according to the report, has refrained from transferring fuel or heavy water to the Arak reactor. Iran has also refrained from testing additional fuel or producing more fuel. Indeed, the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report said that Iran had not manufactured or tested any reactor fuel, and the number of fuel rods produced remains at 11. Iran has refrained from installing any additional reactor components at the Arak site. Centrifuge production has been limited to those needed to replace damaged machines. That has been confirmed by the IAEA’s regular managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops.

Regarding the construction of any new locations for enrichment, in a January 18, 2014 letter to the IAEA, Tehran said it would not pursue any new uranium enrichment sites during the six months of the agreement which has now been extended. Iran also agreed to forgo uranium enrichment using other methods, including laser enrichment. While it is unlikely that Iran could move quickly to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels using these alternative methods, the commitment to refrain from testing any of these methods is positive and should mitigate concerns about covert enrichment activities involving such technologies. Iran is known to have experimented with laser enrichment in the past, and as part of its agreement to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation into inconsistencies with its nuclear declaration and alleged activities with past military dimensions, Iran provided the agency with information about its laser enrichment activities. Iran also gave the IAEA access to the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center on March 12, 2014.

Laser Uranium Enrichment: A Genuine Concern

A number of laser enrichment processes have been developed. One process is molecular laser isotope separation, conceived at Los Alamos Laboratories in 1971. Under that process, carefully formed photons, from an infra-red laser system, operating near the 16mm wavelength, irradiate UF6. The lasers selectively excite the molecules of 235 UF6, not the molecules of 238 UF6. The molecules of the excited 235 UF6 then become easier to differentiate from those of the 238 UF6. Photons from a second laser system selectively dissociates the excited 235 UF6 to form 235 UF5 and free fluorine atoms. The 235 UF5 formed from the dissociation precipitates from the gas as a powder that can be filtered from the gas stream. An advanced laser enrichment technology known as separation of isotopes by laser excitation (SILEX) was developed in Australia by Michael Goldsworthy and Horst Struve. Details of SILEX are classified under the US Atomic Energy Act. In 2006, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy signed an agreement with Silex Systems Ltd. Of Australia and eventually built a SILEX demonstration loop. In September 2012, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board granted GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) a license to build a first-of-its-kind laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina. The license allows GLE to produce up to 6 million single work units per year. Silex has completed the Phase 1 Test Loop Program the facility. GLE promotes laser enrichment as a less costly, less energy-intensive enrichment process.

Nonproliferation analysts and specialists for year have expressed concern over the proliferation threat posed by laser enrichment. If properly engineered, it has the potential to dramatically advance the capabilities of countries to secretly enrich uranium. Princeton University atomic expert Scott Kemp noted that a number of countries already have a workforce specialized in laser technologies. He stated further, “That expertise does not exist for centrifuges, which are a bit esoteric.” Although enriching uranium with lasers on a production-scale appears extremely complicated, laser uranium enrichment is as a potential way for a country to acquire significant quantities of highly enriched uranium. A covert laser uranium enrichment facility might escape detection by the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies because of the relatively small size and few external indicators of such plants. Further, several required research and development activities of laser uranium enrichment can be conducted under a non-nuclear cover.

While visiting an exhibition sponsored by Iran’s National Center for Laser Science and Technology in February 2010, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (center) made a public statement about Iran’s laser uranium enrichment capability that troubled the international community. Ahmadinejad indicated that Iran possessed an advanced and effective laser uranium enrichment capability. Since then, the IAEA has sought data on Iran’s laser work.

Iran has far more than a pilot laser enrichment program. It has developed advanced lasers suitable for isotope separation and highly enriched uranium production. In February 2010, then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a public statement about Iran’s laser uranium enrichment capability. At an exhibition sponsored by Iran’s National Center for Laser Science and Technology, Ahmadinejad stated “Today, we are capable of enriching uranium with lasers. It is now possible to do this using the same devices which are on display here at the exhibition” and that “using the laser technology for enriching uranium would lead to carrying out the enrichment process with higher quality, accuracy, and speed.” He further stated “Iranian scientists have acquired the laser-operating, uranium enrichment know-how, but would put the technology on the shelf for now.” New facilities recently constructed at the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center, once undeclared as a laser enrichment site, have supported Iran’s advanced laser efforts.

The IAEA, itself, has displayed concern over Iran’s laser enrichment capability. On February 8 and 9, 2014, the IAEA and Iran held technical meetings under the terms of the November 2013 Framework for Cooperation. As a result, Iran and the IAEA reached an agreement on seven practical measures that Iran had to implement by May 15, 2014, including one provision where Iran agreed to provide “mutually agreed relevant information and arranging for a technical visit to Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center.” That agreement reinforced the terms of the Framework for Cooperation in November 2013. Iran agreed to further clarify Ahmadinejad’s 2010 statement on laser enrichment also, but the February 2014 IAEA Report stated Iran only partially explained it.

Would Iran Seek Breakout Capacity Through Laser Enrichment?

Many US allies still fear Iran’s diplomatic initiative is a delaying tactic designed to allow other Iranian government elements to bring the nuclear program to breakout capacity, which means acquiring the knowledge and means to develop a nuclear weapon without actually doing so.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the idea that Iran’s diplomatic efforts were legitimate, and rebuffed Obama for even entertaining Iranian overtures.  When the talks began, the Wall Street Journal quoted Israel’s Minister of Intelligence and International Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, as saying, “Israel is interested in a diplomatic solution, like anyone else. But we don’t want to cheat ourselves.” Steinitz went on to state, “Some people are willing to be cheated.”

To put into perspective the possibility that Iran might be conducting an effective laser enrichment program in secret, consider strides made by Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan to revamp and enhance Iran’s advanced defense research programs and strengthen Iranian defense industrial base will greatly enhance Iran’s warfighting capabilities presently and into the future.  Iran has already made great strides in satellite technology, drone, and stealth technology.  The application of those new technologies was evident in the reverse engineering of a US stealth drone, the advent of a new anti-ship system and other naval technologies, and Iran’s greatly enhanced cyber capabilities. Per aspera ad astra! (Through difficulties to the stars!)

Dehghan is an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Air Force brigadier general (Sartip). He is fearless, devout, dedicated to the Islamic Revolution and sworn to defend the Islamic Republic. His efforts on the Expediency Council helped it best advise Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on conventional and unconventional ways Iran could use its military to accomplish political goals in the face of US and Western opposition. Dehghan’s descent to Rouhani’s cabinet, after serving as a committee secretary on the Expediency Council, did not occur because his administrative skills were sorely needed in the Defense Ministry.  Rather, Dehghan was selected in order to manage projects of such importance to Iran’s security that only someone as capable and reliable as him could be counted on to direct.

On January 7, 2015, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made it clear he was no longer concerned about ending sanctions through the nuclear talks, and warned the government that “efforts must be made to immunize Iran against the sanctions” so that “the people will not be hurt.”

Maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich was the requirement Khamenei gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he released him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and consequently, Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei saw the negotiation process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology. While occasionally supportive of government efforts in the nuclear talks, he often expressed some skepticism about them. On January 7, 2014, Khamenei made it clear that he was no longer as concerned about ending sanctions through the nuclear talks, and warned the government that “efforts must be made to immunize Iran against the sanctions” so that “the people will not be hurt.”  He went on to state: “No one should imagine that the enemy may stop its enmity and maliciousness.” He then said, “Once you forget and trust the enemy, then the enemy finds the chance to pursue his goals in the country. But if you identify the enemy and you are strong, ready, arrogance [US] will inevitably stop its enmity.”

The Way Forward

The first successful attempt at gas centrifuge process of uranium enrichment, over which the P5+1 and Iran have primarily been negotiating, was performed in 1934 at the University of Virginia. The work was based on a 1919 proposal. Two chlorine isotopes were separated through a vacuum ultracentrifuge. It was the first process utilized in the renowned Manhattan Project of World War II, but abandoned because the process would unlikely allow for the production of material for a bomb rapidly enough. Electromagnetic separation, initiated at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee facility and eventually, gaseous diffusion, were pursued instead. The Soviet Union successfully used the gas centrifuge process in its nuclear program and during the Cold War, it was the most effective supplier of enriched uranium. Since those years, the gas centrifuge has been considered an economical means for separating uranium-235 from uranium-238 compared to gaseous diffusion. To achieve high degrees of separation of these isotopes, several individual centrifuges must be arranged in cascade to achieve higher concentrations.

Although little is said about it publicly, it sounds exotic, and details on it are relatively obscure, laser enrichment is certainly real. The details are not embellished here. Over eighty years after the first successful attempt gas separation by centrifuge, laser separation has become a viable means for countries to engage in uranium enrichment. It is also a less costly and less energy-intensive process for enriching uranium to fuel atomic energy reactors and making nuclear bombs. Iran’s scientific and technological prowess makes cogent the idea that Iran might be engaged in an advanced laser enrichment effort while negotiating over centrifuges. When decision was made to keep Iran away from nuclear weapons, the international community believed that it would monitor and eventually halt Iran’s centrifugal uranium enrichment, the path taken by countries that had already acquired a nuclear capability. It now appears that line of thinking is driven more by nostalgia than realism. While none of the current nuclear powers may have reached their nuclear capability with lasers, Iran certainly could. Visionaries might be able to provide hints about what Iran is doing. Only divine vision knows for sure.

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