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Iran’s Nuclear Program: Diplomatic Options

by Gary Samore, Vice President and Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Welcome to the Iran nuclear forum. We’ve convened some of the world’s best experts to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue, which is certain to be one of the most important and most difficult security challenges facing the next U.S. President.

I’d like to start by setting the technical baseline. Since January 2006, when Iran resumed enrichment activities at Natanz, Iran has made significant progress towards mastering P-1 centrifuge technology and is proceeding with plans to install and operate a substantial number of P-1 centrifuge machines at the Natanz enrichment plant. Iran plans to install a total of 16 units at the Natanz plant, with each unit containing approximately 3,000 centrifuges (18 cascades of 164 machines each) for a total of approximately 48,000 centrifuges for the entire plant. According to the most recent IAEA report of 15 September 2008, a single unit of 3,000 centrifuges has been fully operational since November 2007, a second unit is about one-third completed (i.e., around 1,000 machines operating), and “installation work” is proceeding on three additional units of 3,000 machines each.  Thus, when the current phase of construction is complete, Iran will have five units or approximately 15,000 P-1 centrifuges in operation at the Natanz enrichment plant. In addition to the centrifuge machines at the Natanz enrichment plant, Iran is operating a much smaller number of P-1 machines – as well as research and development on more advanced centrifuge designs – at the Natanz pilot enrichment facility.

Based on an analysis of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) feed rates as reported by the IAEA, David Albright (who is participating in this forum) estimates that Iran is now operating the P-1 machines at the Natanz enrichment plant at about 85 percent of their design capacity, which is a significant improvement over previous performance.  Thus, it appears that Iran has overcome many of the technical problems that it experienced in the early stage of operating the P-1 machines, when performance was less than 50 percent of design capacity. According to the IAEA’s September report, the Natanz enrichment plant is producing about 2-3 kilograms of low enriched UF6 (i.e., less than 5.0% U-235) per day, for a total stock of about 480 kilograms of low enriched UF6.

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