The Times: Western powers believe that Iran is running short of the raw material required to manufacture nuclear weapons, triggering an international race to prevent it from importing more, The Times has learnt.
Robin Pagnamenta, Michael Evans and Tony Halpin in Moscow
Western powers believe that Iran is running short of the raw material required to manufacture nuclear weapons, triggering an international race to prevent it from importing more, The Times has learnt.
Diplomatic sources believe that Iran’s stockpile of yellow cake uranium, produced from uranium ore, is close to running out and could be exhausted within months. Countries including Britain, the US, France and Germany have started intensive diplomatic efforts to dissuade major uranium producers from selling to Iran.
Before Christmas, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sent out a confidential request for its diplomats in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Brazil, all major uranium producers, to lobby governments not to sell uranium products, specifically yellow cake, to Iran.
Iran’s stock of yellow cake, acquired from South Africa in the 1970s under the Shah’s original civil nuclear power programme, has almost run out. Iran is developing its own uranium mines, but does not have enough ore to support a sustained nuclear programme.
It was shortly before Christmas that diplomats at Britain’s sleek new embassy on Kosmonavtov Street in the Kazakh capital of Astana received a confidential and urgent request. Iran, officials back in Whitehall advised, was believed to be close to running out of its stockpiles of yellow cake — a powdered form of uranium ore.
There were concerns that Tehran could be seeking fresh supplies to support its nuclear programme at a critical juncture — just months before intelligence experts expected it to have accumulated enough enriched material for a bomb. British officials were to urge Kazakhstan, one of the world’s biggest producers, to ignore any possible approaches to obtain imports.
The request, news of which emerged after an international investigation by The Times, was part of a drive by six countries — Britain, the US, France, Germany, Australia and Canada — to choke off supplies of uranium to Iran. It is a move that, while unlikely to cripple any effort to develop a bomb, would blunt its ambitions and help to contain the threat, authoritative sources said.
Kazakhstan, with 15 per cent of the world’s deposits, is an increasingly important player in the global uranium trade and has set a target this year to become the world’s largest producer.
Uzbekistan, where British officials are involved in a similar lobbying exercise, also has large deposits and was a leading supplier for weapons-grade material during Soviet times.
While there is no direct evidence that Iran has actively sought to buy uranium from either country, Western intelligence sources view them as one of a number of potential weak spots in the supply chain.
Others include the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where uranium for the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 was mined and where there have been persistent rumours of illegal exports to countries including Iran. Getting to the truth about such claims is notoriously difficult. Reports by British Intelligence of an attempt by Saddam Hussein to acquire substantial quantities of yellow cake from Niger in West Africa for a clandestine nuclear bomb project turned out to be fabricated. That did not stop President Bush referring to them, in March 2003, as part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq.
But the very real international effort to choke off supplies of yellow cake to Iran, which also included British lobbying of Brazil, reflect mounting concern that 2009 is likely to be a pivotal year for Iran’s nuclear programme.
It also vividly illustrates the urgency surrounding the biggest foreign policy challenge facing President Obama. The journey from innocent uranium ore to weapons-grade nuclear fuel is complex and requires sophisticated technology, but the Iranians are acquiring the expertise, which is why Western countries, and Israel, are so concerned at the prospect of having to confront a nuclear-armed Iran.
To reach weapons-grade uranium-235, Iran would have to produce a highly enriched fuel, and that requires thousands of centrifuges. It is estimated that 200kg of yellow cake could produce 1kg of weapons-grade (94 per cent enriched) uranium. About 20kg of highly enriched uranium are required for one bomb.
Iran, which has always claimed that its nuclear programme is peaceful, acquired several thousand tonnes of yellow cake from South Africa during the mid-1970s shortly after the Shah initiated the country’s original push for civil nuclear power. Tehran also has two small uranium mines but they are costly to run, yield only small quantities of ore and are suffering from problems with purity.
Last May, a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggested that around 70 per cent of Iran’s available yellow cake had been converted to uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas at a conversion plant in the city of Esfahan.
David Albright, founder of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said that Iran now had enough of this gasified uranium, stored in canisters weighing 10-14 tonnes each, to produce as many as 35 bombs, but it may run out of yellow cake to keep feeding the plant by the end of the year.
Beside the gas conversion facility, Iran also needs yellow cake to convert into pellets for fuel rods to run its Arak heavy water reactor. It also apparently wants large quantities of yellow cake to turn into low-enriched uranium for its new Russian-built reactor at Bushehr, in case Moscow reneges on a deal to supply nuclear fuel.
However, Tehran’s relative shortage of uranium exposes puzzling questions about its claims to be pursuing a purely peaceful civil nuclear energy programme. It would need far larger quantities of yellow cake than it can produce from its own small mines to have sufficient fuel for a civil nuclear power programme.
“You need 200 tonnes per year just for one 1,000 megawatt power station,” an IAEA source said. Iran has said that it wants to build 20 reactors, but the agency believes that the Iranians managed to process only 21 tonnes of uranium at a production centre at Bandar Abbas in southern Iran in one year, and plan to handle 50 tonnes a year from a new facility at Ardakan in the centre of the country, which is due to open later this year.
Moreover, Russia has an agreement with Iran to supply the prefabricated fuel that it needs for a civil nuclear power station it is building at Bushehr. The international community also offered in 2006 to supply the fuel rods and assemblies needed for a civil nuclear programme. Yet Iran insists on pursuing the development of its own facilities to mine and process uranium on its own — at vastly higher cost than it would pay for the fuel on the international market.
Any move by the Iranians to buy stocks of uranium from other countries could be interpreted two ways: either as an investment for what they claim is a genuine civil nuclear power programme or as an insurance policy for a future successful weapons project.
Iran is subject to a comprehensive safeguards agreement under which IAEA inspectors are meant to make checks to ensure that Tehran is not trying to divert nuclear material for a civil power programme to a military one. The agreement, however, covers only named installations that do not include the mines, and there remain a series of unanswered questions which have raised serious concerns about Iran’s motives. UN Security Council Resolution 1737 prohibits countries from supplying any items “which could contribute to Iran’s enrichment-related . . . activities”. Few, if any, of the big producers would want to take the risk of doing business with Iran.
However, the frantic efforts to make sure that producing countries hold the line highlight the growing challenge of containing the uranium trade at a time when it is expanding briskly. Governments around the world are looking to nuclear energy as an answer to concerns about energy.
Mining operations are already carried out in nearly 20 countries including Canada, Australia, Russia Namibia, Ukraine, China and Pakistan and in the past year alone new mines have been proposed in a string of countries from Zambia to Uruguay and Jordan to Sudan.
Monitoring this trade is a challenge in itself but there are also growing fears over the danger of nuclear smuggling. The US sent experts last year to help Georgia to install radiation detection equipment at border points when the work was interrupted by the war over South Ossetia. The project was given added urgency by a sting operation in Georgia in 2006, when a Russian man was arrested trying to sell 100g of highly enriched uranium. He claimed to have access to another 4kg. Georgia and the US signed an agreement in 2007 to combat nuclear smuggling. Neighbouring Armenia, which has a land border with Iran, signed a similar agreement with the US last year. But it is the possibility that uranium could be smuggled out of Africa, specifically Congo (DRC), that is keeping Western officials awake at night.
In 2005, Iran tried to smuggle some Uranium 238 by ship from Congo to Bandar Abbas, but this was foiled by Tanzanian customs officials.
Peter Rickwood, an IAEA official, said: “Nobody is quite sure how much of that stuff is being exported. There have been persistent rumours about uranium coming out of the DRC and going to North Korea or Iran. Yes, we are concerned about that.”
Additional reporting by James Bone in New York, James Hider in Jerusalem and Jonathan Clayton in Johannesburg