Iran's Nuclear Facilities: a Profile
by Andrew Koch and Jeanette Wolf 1998
by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Bonab The area 80 km south of Tabriz is home to the Bonab Atomic Energy Research Center, which conducts research on nuclear technology for agricultural uses. 50 The facility, run by the AEOI and headed by Hussein Afarideh, is not under IAEA safeguards but was visited by IAEA Director General Hans Blix in July 1997. 51 Although Blix found no prohibited activities and the facility has not generally been the subject of allegations, one report claimed that a nuclear reactor housed in a reinforced-concrete bunker was under construction with Chinese assistance there. 52
Assessment: Publicly available information on the Bonab Atomic Energy Research Center suggests that it is a minimal proliferation threat with little military application aside from providing basic nuclear training. The Blix visit and the scant amount of information on the center do not substantiate the report that a secret nuclear reactor is being built at Bonab.
Darkhovin (also called Ahvaz, Esteghlal, and Karun) Located on the Karun River south of the city of Ahvaz, Darkhovin was the proposed location for a nuclear power plant to be built by either French or Chinese firms. The first proposal was for France to build two nuclear reactors there in the late 1970s. In 1974, Iran signed a contract with the French company Framatome to build two 950 MW pressurized water reactors (PWRs) at the site they called Karun. 53 Although Framatome surveyed the area and site preparations had begun, construction had not yet started when Iran canceled the contract following the Islamic revolution in 1979. 54
Iran made a second attempt to acquire a nuclear power plant at Darkhovin, contracting China to build two 300 MW PWRs for a project the Chinese called Esteghlal. On 10 September 1992, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani announced that China's Qinshan Nuclear Power Company and the Shanghai Nuclear Research and Design Institute agreed to build the reactors as part of a nuclear cooperation agreement. 55 Chinese officials said it could take up to 10 years to complete the two reactors. 56 Western analysts at the time predicted the plant would never be finished because China was not technically capable of building a 300 MW reactor without importing key components from abroad. 57 These arguments have been disproved by China's apparently successful attempt to build the Chashma-1 reactor in Pakistan, which is nearing completion.
Although preliminary preparations, such as a seismic study, were conducted, the deal now seems to be on hold. 58 China failed to submit a detailed technical plan for the plant and failed to implement an agreement to train Iranian nuclear technicians. 59 The Iranian side was unable to provide detailed financial plans on how to raise $2 billion for the two reactors. 60 Several reports have quoted Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen as telling U. S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher on 27 September 1995, that Beijing "terminated" the reactor contract. 61 Qian changed his statement on 30 September 1995, saying the deal was merely suspended "because the original site is not very appropriate for these nuclear reactors." 62 The planned site was subsequently moved from Darkhovin to near Bushehr due to Darkhovin's proximity to Iraq. 63 Since 1995, however, there have been no new developments on the proposal and it is doubtful that Iran could afford the project while paying for construction of Bushehr-1.
Assessment: A severe shortage of hard currency, coupled with payments for the Bushehr-1 reactor, makes progress on the Darkhovin project unlikely until Iran's financial situation improves. If the project were to proceed, the two reactors would likely be built by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) near Bushehr. Although the reactors would be under IAEA safeguards, completion of a nuclear power plant at Darkhovin would provide Iran with nuclear technology from which the country's military could draw expertise and personnel. Despite the presence of IAEA safeguards, the concern remains that the reactors' spent fuel could be stolen or diverted for use in a secret reprocessing program. Furthermore, enlarging the size and scope of Iran's nuclear infrastructure could make it more difficult to detect and assess a clandestine nuclear research and development (R& D) program [though not the nuclear facilities themselves].
Isfahan (Esfahan) Nuclear Technology Center The Nuclear Technology Center at Isfahan was founded in the mid-1970s with French assistance in order to provide training for Bushehr reactor personnel. 64 Located at the University of Isfahan and directed by Kazem Rassouly, the center houses four small research reactors. 65 The first, a Chinese-supplied 27 kilowatt thermal (kWt) miniature neutron source reactor (MNSR), went critical in March 1994. The MNSR is used to produce isotopes and burns 900 g of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel supplied by the CNNC. 66 The center also has a Chinese-supplied heavy water, zero power, reactor which went critical in 1995, and two Chinese-supplied sub-critical reactors which were completed in 1992 (an open tank facility fueled by uranium metal pins and a graphite-moderated facility). 67 The CNNC supplied the MNSR and the zero-power reactor with heavy water. 68
During a November 1996 IAEA visit to Isfahan, Iran informed the IAEA Department of Safeguards that it plans to build a uranium hexafluoride (UF6) conversion plant at the Nuclear Technology Center. 69 Tehran expects the Chinese-supplied plant, which will be placed under IAEA safeguards, to become operational sometime after 2000. 70 The plans explain the presence of 15 Chinese nuclear experts at the center in 1995, who were likely making design preparations for the facility. 71 U. S. officials subsequently convinced China to halt the transfer of anhydrous hydrogen fluoride (AHF) and other UF6-related materials as a prelude to opening nuclear exports to China. 72 Although AHF is not regulated by the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) list of controlled nuclear technologies, it is a feedstock material for converting natural uranium into UF6. Beijing may have already provided Tehran with blueprints for the UF6 facility. 73
The planned UF6 plant prompted allegations that R& D on gas centrifuge technology was secretly being conducted at Isfahan. 74 Uranium hexafluoride gas is used to feed a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant. Any R& D activities at the site would likely be overseen by AEOI personnel and Isfahan University staff. Key staff at the center include: Morteza Saghalan Nejad, university chancellor; Ahmad Abrishamchi, vice-chancellor for research; Safa Isfahani, dean of physics; Fakhr-o-Din Ashrafizadeh, dean of materials science and metallurgy; Mahmood Vafaian, dean of mining engineering; H. Bassir, professor of mining engineering; and Mohammad Reza Ehsani, dean of chemical engineering. 75
Assessment: The facilities currently operating at the Nuclear Technology Center are not a direct proliferation threat because they are safeguarded, because the research reactors can not produce significant amounts of plutonium-bearing spent fuel, and because only minor amounts of heavy water and HEU are present. However, Iranian attempts to buy a 30 MWt heavy water research reactor from China in 1991 raised concerns. 76 A deal to build the reactor at Isfahan, which would have been capable of producing significant quantities of plutonium in its spent fuel, never materialized due to technical and financial problems. Coupled with the rapid build-up of nuclear facilities at Isfahan, the proposed reactor deal raised concerns that the center may be conducting research on nuclear technology with military applications; a worry exacerbated by the fact that part of the center is apparently built underground. 77
The planned UF6 production plant fuels additional suspicion. There is no logical explanation for Iran to build such a plant, the product from which is used to feed a uranium enrichment facility. Iran does not have a declared uranium enrichment facility, nor does it require one for its civilian nuclear program. The country's lone commercial reactor, at Bushehr, will use nuclear fuel imported from Russia. Due to the absence of commercial nuclear power plants and the high investment costs associated with building nuclear facilities, the development of fuel cycle facilities such as the UF6 plant suggests that Tehran may wish to use them for non-peaceful purposes.
National Iranian Steel Company The National Iranian Steel Company (NISCO) in Isfahan, which produces steel for a Defense Industries Organization (DIO) munitions plant, could provide a number of nuclear-related metallurgical products. 78 With help from Japan's Nippon Steel, the Italian firm Danieli built four specialty steel plants for NISCO that could have the capability to produce maraging steel and other corrosion- resistant alloys useful in a nuclear program and in the construction of ballistic missiles. 79 The Isfahan Alloy Steel Complex, of which the plants are a part, officially opened on 20 August 1996, and has a capacity of 30,000 tons of alloy steel per year. 80
Assessment: The status of the NISCO plants is questionable. In 1996, British customs officials seized a shipment of 55 kg of maraging steel, used to make uranium enrichment centrifuges as well as components for missiles and other military hardware, that was bound from the United States to Iran. 81 If the plants are operable and can produce maraging steel, the Iranian government would be unlikely to waste valuable oversees procurement assets to acquire this high-strength alloy. Danieli's participation in the project is of additional concern due to the firm's past involvement in building a maraging steel plant for Iraq's Taji uranium enrichment centrifuge production facility. 82
Gorgan (also called Neka) Iran had planned to build two Russian VVER-440 MWe power reactors at a facility in Gorgan, sometimes referred to as either the Gorgan al-Kabir Center or Neka. 83 The deal was part of a 6 March 1990, protocol between the Soviet Union and Iran, which stipulated that Moscow would complete Bushehr-1 and -2, as well as build two VVER-440 reactors at an unnamed site, later identified as Gorgan. 84 Russian technicians conducted a geological survey of the area, but determined that it was unsuitable for nuclear facilities due to seismological instability. 85 It was then decided to build the proposed reactors at Bushehr. 86
Despite the location change, allegations persist that the area is home to a secret nuclear weapons-related facility. 87 According to one report, Iranian, Ukrainian, Russian, and Kazak scientists are working at the Gorgan al-Kabir Center, earning up to $20,000 a month each. 88 The facility, said to be one of Iran's largest nuclear research centers, is allegedly supervised by AEOI Deputy Chairman Mansour Haj Azim. Two Russian scientists, Dr. Larichenkov and Dr. Ayshrov, reportedly led the research efforts there. 89 Other sources have said that Israel threatened to bomb the facility in 1996, ostensibly due to its involvement in Iran's nuclear weapons development efforts. 90
Assessment: Although this facility has not been declared to the IAEA, and therefore was not inspected as part of the agency's 1992 trip to Iran, there is no available evidence to justify allegations of nuclear activities in the area. The allegations, which originated with the Iraqi-based Mojahedin-e Khalq resistance group, are likely founded on the now canceled plan to build two Russian reactors at Gorgan. These sources likely confused the presence of Russian technicians conducting the site survey for more dubious activities.