Last week, the New York Times and the Financial Times USA ran stories that implied that Iran had been hiding enriched uranium and had been caught red-handed during the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) physical inventory inspection. While supposedly based on the IAEA report (GOV/2009/8), the articles more closely followed the ISIS analysis of the report. [Jeffery Lewis, as usual, also has good analysis and comments on Arms Control Wonk.] The IAEA report itself raises few alarm bells. Yes, the Iranians are continuing to enrich uranium; yes, they claim it is exclusively for a civilian nuclear reactor program, a claim for which no one can provide credible assurances, and, yes, every day they enrich uranium, they are closer to having enough for nuclear weapon capability, once that political decision is made. But the IAEA report does not reveal any sudden jump in enrichment capability or even uranium inventory and it goes out of its way to say that the result of the inspection is consistent with what was previously declared by Iran, within “the measurement uncertainties normally associated with enrichment plants of similar throughput”. So what is the issue here?
The Financial Times headline, “Iran holds enough uranium for bomb” with the subtitles “UN report reveals leap in nuclear stocks” and “Capacity breaches Israel’s ‘red line’ limit,” and the New York Times headline, “Iran Has More Enriched Uranium than Thought” are both more provocative than warranted by the IAEA report itself. Both articles report that, in the most recent IAEA report from 19 February, the estimated inventory of low-enriched uranium (LEU) had jumped by a third. The New York Times said that the IAEA had “discovered” an additional 460 pounds (or 209 kg) of LEU. This number is wrong to begin with because the IAEA reported an additional 209 kg, not of uranium, but of uranium hexafluoride (UF6). UF6 is about 68 percent uranium, so there is only an additional 142 kg of uranium in 209 kg of UF6. We will come back to this.
“Discovered” is stretching. The origin of that 209 kg is the difference between the amount of enriched UF6 reported in IAEA documents GOV/2009/8 and GOV/2008/59 — two consecutive reports for Iran’s inventory as of November 2008. The IAEA report of 19 November 2008 states that from February 2007 to 7 November 2008 “…based on the operator’s daily accounting records, Iran had produced approximately 630 kg of low enriched UF6 [uranium hexafluoride]. All nuclear material at FEP [Fuel Enrichment Plant], as well as all installed cascades, remain under Agency containment and surveillance.”
We do not want to seem to be apologists for Iran. Their uranium enrichment program makes no economic sense. It could be consistent with a nuclear power fuel program but it is also consistent with a nuclear weapons program. It seems undeniable that Iran wants to at least maintain the option of developing a nuclear weapon. An Iranian nuclear weapon would be a danger to the world, and to Iran. We believe the rest of the world should work hard to avoid such a development but the world should develop policies based on the best analysis available. The hard facts are bad enough, there is no need for exaggeration.