I’d like to pull together the discussion we had a couple of weeks ago on that Iranian announcement that they produced and were irradiating a fuel element in the Tehran Research Reactor. I think it illustrates how careful we need to be in reading this sort of thing.
The announcement was made as the expectation rises of more negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. The P5+1 (also called the E3+3 when Europe is being emphasized) is the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, and People’s Republic of China), plus Germany. In October, Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, wrote a letter (pdf) to Iran on behalf of the P5+1 proposing that talks begin again. Letters of this sort are usually written with the consent of the receiving party, in this case, Iran.
As is not uncommon, some of the parties and their internal groups felt it necessary to posture in preparation for the negotiations. So the Republicans in Congress push toward heavy sanctions and unworkable restrictions on diplomatic communications, and the Iranians announce this fuel element. “Fuel element” is the generic term; “fuel rod” and “fuel plate” imply particular configurations.
In the past, Iran has announced technical breakthroughs as part of their posturing, sometimes before those breakthroughs were fully in hand. It’s one way to appear strong in the face of threatened sanctions, and it’s morale-building internally. So skepticism is warranted.
That’s the context. Now let’s look at what Iran announced.
Iranian scientists successfully built and tested the first indigenous nuclear fuel rod, carrying natural uranium.
The nuclear fuel rod has passed all physical and dimensional tests to examine the performance. It was sent into the core of Tehran Research Reactor.
The rod which has received rays for 1500 MW per hour has successfully passed neutron-related tests in terms of radioactivity level and non-leakage of the radioactive materials during initial phases in different powers in the reactor.
It is also receiving rays in the core of Tehran Research Reactor for long-term.
Over past years, Iranian nuclear experts have managed to use the reactor to provide required radiopharmaceuticals and thwart inhumane threats imposed against Iran by the West and use the reactor for test fuel purposes.
Scientists and researchers at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran have successfully tested the first domestically produced nuclear fuel rod containing natural uranium, Iranian news agencies reported on Sunday.
According to the reports, the first nuclear fuel rod was loaded into the core of the Tehran research reactor as part of an experiment to test its performance in operation.
Now Iran should convert fuel rods into fuel plates to power the Tehran research reactor, which produces radioisotopes for cancer treatment.
Iran has constructed an advanced plant at the Isfahan nuclear facility for manufacturing nuclear fuel plates. With the construction of the plant, Iran is now among the few countries that can manufacture both nuclear fuel rods and plates.
The nuclear plant for converting enriched nuclear fuel into fuel rods was inaugurated in Isfahan in early spring 2009.
Iranian officials had previously said that the technology for producing nuclear fuel plates does not differ greatly from the technology for producing nuclear fuel rods.
The ISNA report doesn’t say much, but the Tehran Times report distinguishes between fuel plates (used in the Tehran Research Reactor) and fuel rods (used in other reactors).
There is also an account in Al Jazeera, but it clearly has passed through the hands of reporters and editors who don’t know what fuel elements are. So I would discount that report as a source from which one might infer what it is that the Iranians have produced.
A couple of examples:
The new nuclear rods were made with uranium ore deposits mined in Iran and have been inserted into the core of Tehran’s research nuclear reactor, the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation said on Sunday.
Nuclear fuel rods contain small pellets of fuel, usually low-enriched uranium, patterned to give out heat produced by nuclear reaction without melting down.
Someone who knows what they’re talking about wouldn’t say these things in these ways. It’s a long way from uranium ore deposits to a fuel element. That fuel in the pellets is usually uranium oxide, and the last part of that sentence isn’t wrong, just strange. What I’d expect to hear from a knowledgeable writer would be more like this:
The new nuclear fuel rods were made with uranium mined in Iran and have been inserted into the core of the Tehran Research Reactor for testing, the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation said on Sunday.
Nuclear fuel rods contain small pellets of uranium oxide, usually low-enriched. A reactor contains many fuel rods arranged to provide stable heating for power generation.
That whole paragraph would have been much more informative if it described fuel elements for the TRR and how this fuel element is the same or different and why. There are other problems as well in the Al Jazeera article.
Those are the sources that Olli Heinonen cites in a piece published by Julian Borger on his blog. From those sources, he concludes that the fuel element “is intended for the IR-40 heavy water reactor at Arak, rather than for a light water nuclear power station like Bushehr, which uses rods of low enriched U-235.” The Arak reactor and heavy water stored there are part of the contention between the IAEA and Iran. Iran has failed to provide some of the notifications required relative to that reactor. Further, it is of a type that is useful for producing plutonium for weapons.
If those news sources I’ve linked are Heinonen’s only sources, this is a big leap of logic, although not completely unreasonable. A fuel rod fabricated with 20% enriched uranium would be suitable only for the Arak reactor, not the TRR (which uses a plate configuration) or the Bushehr reactor (which uses rods with low-enriched uranium). The IRNA report specifically refers to natural uranium, not enriched, however. It’s possible that Heinonen has other sources, but he doesn’t say that.
It would be standard procedure to fabricate a fuel element of either configuration and irradiate it to test the manufacturing process. Unenriched uranium would be the material of choice. If the pellets, plate, or tubing have imperfections, the element may deform or burst.
In the Forum, Susan gave a recent chronology of fuel development in Iran, based on IAEA reports. I’ve rewritten it slightly but haven’t changed any substance.
In November 2010, no equipment for TRR fuel fabrication had been installed at the Fuel Manufacturing Plant (FMP). Six months later, in March 2011, Atomic Energy of Iran (AEOI) announced plans to start production at the FMP of natural UO2 for the Arak reactor. The process had started by May, but no UO2 had been produced. At that time, no equipment had been installed for the conversion of the 20% enriched UF6 into U3O8 for TRR fuel fabrication.
Also in May 2011, Iran informs the IAEA that a fresh fuel rod of natural UO2 would be shipped to TRR for irradiation and post-irradiation analysis. The irradiation began in August. In October, Iran started to install equipment for fuel fabrication for the TRR. AEOI confirms that five fuel plates containing natural U3O8 had been produced at the R&D lab at FMP for testing purposes.
So the more recently produced fuel elements would be for the TRR, not Arak. It seems to me (in a slight difference with Susan) that a prototype fuel rod for Arak may have been produced and irradiated earlier.
Robert Kelley, like Heinonen a former UN inspector, thinks that the fuel element is a TRR plate. This probably comes from the IAEA reports Susan cited, but, as with Heinonen, it would be nice to know more about his sources.
So it’s hard to be sure exactly what the Iranians have done. They’ve tested a fuel element. Its configuration isn’t clear, but it seems most likely to be a plate for the TRR. It seems to have been fabricated in a laboratory, rather than production, facility.
On the larger question of whether this activity moves Iran closer to being able to produce nuclear weapons, the answer is a qualified yes. And that would be very qualified. A single fuel element, fabricated in a laboratory, is some distance from production. That fabrication and testing by irradiation will provide additional information for building a full-scale manufacturing facility. Building that facility will take time, and then the fuel elements produced will have to be tested as well before full production and reactor operation.