The United Nations confirmed last week that Iran had violated several U.N. resolutions by activating a second set, or “cascade,” of centrifuges for enriching uranium at its nuclear plant in Natanz, leaving many wondering what this latest development meant.
The West has accused Iran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program, a charge Tehran denies. Babylon and Beyond recently spoke with former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright and asked him to put Iran’s latest move into perspective.
B&B: Centrifuges spin at high rates of speed to enrich uranium that could be used for a nuclear weapon or to generate electricity. What does it mean that Iran has activated a second cascade of centrifuges?
Albright: Activating the second cascade produces enriched uranium more efficiently, but it doesn’t really lead to increased production. The reason for concern is that we have to wonder why they are doing it. They don’t need to produce 20% enriched uranium efficiently. You only need a little 20% for the research reactor, so we have to conclude that they are trying to learn how to operate this centrifuge cascade. If they were going to make weapons-grade uranium, they would definitely need to learn to make it more efficiently.
B&B: Does this have serious implications for Iran’s nuclear capabilities?
Albright: Yes. When they go to weapons-grade uranium, they are going to have to use their material very efficiently, which means mastering this process of recycling waste… they will have to master this technique. It’s just practice; it’s not that hard to do, but they have had all kinds of trouble at each step along the way. While they appear to be technically capable, they’ve had problems that defy explanation. I think it has to do with a lack of technical depth, because the centrifuges are not that difficult to operate.
B&B: Iran says it needs the 20% enriched uranium for a medical research reactor. Are you saying that isn’t credible?
Albright: I’m sure they plan to use it for that, but they don’t need to do this step in order to accomplish that goal — they don’t have to be this efficient. They were making about 3 or 4 kilograms of 20% uranium a month, and they only need 10 to 20 kilograms a year… [By activating the second cascade] the waste product of the first cascade is … fed into the second cascade and the product [of that] is put back into the first cascade. … The output is 19.7%, which is the same as they were making before, but it’s more efficient. … Why are they doing this? This could just be centrifuge people trying to be more efficient, or it could be that they want to make 20% material that is way beyond what they need for the research reactor, so you do have to ask: Is there a hidden weapons motivation?
B&B: We understand that process of enriching uranium becomes increasingly easier as the quality goes up, so that once they can enrich to 20%, it becomes much easier to reach 90%, which is weapons grade. Is this correct?
Albright: It’s less energy [to go from 20% enrichment to 90%], so you don’t need as many centrifuges to do it. … If you put in 60,000 centrifuges … to go from 20% to 90%, you need just 500 of those 60,000 centrifuges. That’s less than 10% of centrifuges to go from 20% to 90%.
B&B: What options face the international community if they want to stop Iran from producing enough weapons-grade material for a bomb?
Albright: Sanctions are hurting them; they are pretty bothered by that, but the main thing for the [International Atomic Energy Agency] is to watch what is going on. They are in the main enrichment plant twice a month on average and in the pilot plant where these centrifuges are operating about four times a month.
B&B: So what should we be looking out for in the coming months?
Albright: How much 20% material is made. That is key, and then if there are problems that develop and if [the Iranians] are fully cooperative.
– Meris Lutz in Beirut