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Iran's Nuclear Facilities: a Profile
by Andrew Koch and Jeanette Wolf 1998
by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies

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Center for Agricultural Research and Nuclear Medicine Inaugurated on 11 May 1991, by Iranian Vice President Hassan Habibi, the facility at Karaj is a nuclear medicine and agricultural research center run by the AEOI. 91 A 30 Mega-electronvolt (MeV) cyclotron accelerator supplied by Belgium's Ion Beam Applications, and a small (one milliamp (mA) Chinese-supplied and -installed calutron are located there. 92 The existence of these devices has led to allegations that, in 1995, China was installing a uranium enrichment facility using calutrons at Karaj. 93 A large hydro-electric dam located nearby could provide the facility with the large amounts of electricity it would require. 94 However, the Chinese-supplied calutron is housed in a gymnasium-sized building that uses an unprotected ventilation system, precluding its work with radioactive substances. 95

Assessment: Allegations of a secret uranium enrichment plant at Karaj are likely misinterpretations of the Chinese-supplied calutron's capabilities. Aside from the configuration of the ventilation system, the desktop-sized machine has the wrong technical specification to be used in a uranium enrichment program; it is used to produce stable isotopes of zinc for biological research. 96 The device is too small to enrich uranium to weapons grade, and Iranian scientists have experienced problems operating it correctly, although some progress has been made. 97 Furthermore, IAEA inspectors visited the facility in 1992 and determined that its activities were consistent with civilian nuclear research. 98

Although the Karaj facility does not currently violate IAEA safeguards obligations and is not an immediate proliferation threat, it does present some long-term concerns. Iranian technicians could use the calutron and cyclotron to gain knowledge of electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS) technology. Such technology could be used to build or reverse-engineer larger versions of the devices to clandestinely enrich uranium in another facility. However, an EMIS enrichment plant would require large amounts of electricity, making it difficult to conceal.

Were Iran to try to domestically produce its own calutrons, it would need precision machining facilities to make the large magnets that powerful calutrons require. Although Iran has little indigenous capacity to build precision machine-tools, it imported high-capacity computer-numerical- control (CNC) lathes and vertical turning machines from the Czechoslovak firm Strojimport in 1982-83. The Iranian state-owned heavy manufacturing firm Machine Sazi Arak bought eight vertical turning and boring machines (three Model SKJ-12A, three Model SKJ-20A, and two SKD-32A), and the Czech firm TST Kovosvit Semimovo Usti provided Machine Sazi Arak with at least five CNC drilling machines. 99

Iran could acquire more machine-tools from turn-key factories that foreign firms are establishing in Iran, several of which are scheduled to be completed in the late 1990s. To augment this capability, the Iranian minister for mines and metals signed a letter of intent on 5 December 1996, pledging Tehran's interest in buying the ailing former East German machine-tool manufacturer Sket Magdeburg. 100 Such a move would be similar to Iraq's former arrangement with British machine-tool maker Matrix Churchill, from which Baghdad procured machine-tools used in its weapons of mass destruction programs. Acquisitions from any of these suppliers, in conjunction with the Czech-supplied CNC machines, would give Iran the capability to manufacture the necessary large magnets for a calutron. 101

Moallem Kaleyah (Mo'allem Kalayeh, Moa'alem Kelayeh, also called Ghaziv (Ghazvin), Qazvin, and Alamout)

Located in the mountains northwest of Tehran, Moallem Kaleyah was the proposed site for a 10 MWt research reactor India was going to build under a 1991 agreement with Iran. 102 Although New Delhi canceled the deal under U. S. pressure, allegations remain that Iran has a secret nuclear facility in the area. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) allegedly oversees a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant at Moallem Kaleyah, said to be Iran's primary fissile material production center. 103 This facility was reportedly established in 1987 using equipment acquired from French, German, and Italian companies. 104 Other sources claim the area could be where weaponization and design work is conducted. 105 IAEA inspectors visited the site in February 1992, but found only a small training and recreation facility being built for AEOI staff. 106 Skeptics argue that the inspectors were taken to the wrong location, far away from the intended site. 107 These critics charge that because the inspectors were not carrying navigation equipment to determine their precise location, they were easily led to an alternative facility that was not the intended inspection site. IAEA officials said those allegations are "just plain wrong." 108

Assessment: There is a lack of verifiable open-source evidence to prove that Moallem Kaleyah is anything more than a small AEOI training and recreation facility. Iran has not demonstrated an ability to build even a pilot-scale centrifuge facility and it is unlikely that Tehran could build and hide a large-scale uranium enrichment plant (see Sharif University of Technology). The allegations could stem from past activity in the area associated with the proposed reactor deal with India.

Amir Kabir University of Technology Founded in 1958 as Tehran Polytechnic, Tehran's Amir Kabir University of Technology offers doctorates in nuclear science and technology and conducts research into theoretical and high-energy physics. 109 The school has allegedly been used as a front to procure nuclear components, including attempts by university representatives to purchase neutron-shielding equipment from the U. S. firm Reactor Experiments. 110 Individuals involved in nuclear-related activities at Amir Kabir would likely include: Mohammed Hussein Salimi, chancellor; Jafar Milimmon-Fared, deputy vice-chancellor; F. Afshar Taromi, head of polymer engineering; H Modarres, head of chemical engineering; and M. Salari, head of mining and metallurgical engineering. 111

Assessment: Aside from the nuclear-related training that Amir Kabir could provide, the school could be used as a front for Iran to obtain dual-use technology for its nuclear program. Had it been successful, the neutron-shielding equipment would have likely been located at Tehran University and could be used in a plutonium reprocessing R& D program.

University of Tehran The Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC), located at the University of Tehran and overseen by the AEOI, is Iran's primary open nuclear research facility. It is also the nucleus of many secret Iranian atomic programs, including plutonium reprocessing, laser enrichment, and weapon design R& D efforts. The TNRC houses a safeguarded 5 MWt pool-type research reactor, supplied by the United States in 1967, that can produce up to 600 g of plutonium per year in its spent fuel. 112 In 1987, the AEOI paid Argentina's Applied Research Institute (INVAP) $5.5 million to convert the reactor from using 93 percent enriched uranium fuel to burning 20 percent enriched uranium fuel. 113 The Argentine Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEA) has subsequently supplied the reactor with 115.8 kg of safeguarded 20 percent enriched uranium fuel. 114

During the former Shah of Iran's reign, the TNRC experimented with chemically extracting plutonium from spent fuel, a former head of the AEOI said. 115 According to a former TNRC technician, Iran completed and cold tested a plutonium extraction laboratory at the center in 1988 but did not reprocess any plutonium. 116 The status of this facility is uncertain, although it is believed to be inoperable. The TNRC has hot cells, supplied by the United States in 1967, which can be used to reprocess gram quantities of plutonium from spent fuel. 117 Iranian representatives may have approached Argentina about buying additional hot cells, but a deal was never completed. 118 Also, Iran acquired tributylphosphate (TBP) from China, a chemical used in the plutonium separation process. 119 China may have further supplied Iran with data on chemical separation technology. 120

In support of its reprocessing program, Iran tried to acquire the capability to produce heavy water and nuclear fuel for a reactor. Such attempts could have been part of a long-term program to clandestinely build and operate a heavy water reactor to produce plutonium-bearing spent fuel for separation in a reprocessing plant. Iran negotiated with Argentina for a fuel fabrication pilot-plant and a pilot-scale heavy water production facility, but the deals were canceled by Argentine President Carlos Menem due to U. S. pressure. 121 Iran does have a lab-scale uranium mill at the TNRC, used to produce yellowcake from raw uranium ore, but IAEA inspectors visited the site in 1992 and found that it was not operable. 122

Iran does have a lab-scale uranium mill at the TNRC, used to produce yellowcake from raw uranium ore, but IAEA inspectors visited the site in 1992 and found that it was not operable. In addition, China is providing Tehran with a plant to produce zirconium tubes which are used to clad nuclear fuel in a reactor's core. 123

The TNRC may have also been the center of Iran's nuclear weapon design program. The shah assembled a nuclear weapon design team as part of his government's atomic research efforts, which could have included computer modeling and basic research of a nuclear explosive device. 124 Following the 1979 Islamic revolution, the new government was able to keep or lure back key TNRC personnel and therefore probably inherited most of the nuclear weapon design team's data and knowledge.

Although there is a paucity of publicly available information on current nuclear weapon design activities in Iran, such activities would likely involve personnel from the TNRC. Iran has attempted to acquire equipment that could be used to fabricate weapon parts and assist in design efforts. Tehran sought high-speed cameras and flash x-ray equipment which may have been shipped to Iran through the U. K., and purchased an oscilloscope and pulse generators from a U. S. firm (see Sharif University). 125 Such equipment could be used to measure and calibrate the shock wave of an implosion device. Also, Tehran may have procured a vacuum arc furnace (see Sharif University) and acquired precision machine-tools (see Karaj), which can be used to cast and machine weapon cores, respectively.

The TNRC houses the Laser Research Center and its subsidiary the Ibn-e Heysam Research and Laboratory Complex, which was officially opened on 13 October 1992. 126 Headed by A. Hariri, the center has been the focal point of Iran's program to enrich uranium using the laser isotope separation (LIS) method since the mid-1970s. 127 It has production lines for red helium-neon lasers and CO2 gas lasers, a glass-tube manufacturing unit, an optical manufacturing unit, a nitrogen laser laboratory, a solid laser laboratory, a precision laser laboratory, semi-guided laser laboratories, and a polymer laser laboratory. 128 In addition to these indigenous LIS development efforts, Iran received at least one copper-vapor laser from China. 129 During the 1970s, Tehran sought LIS equipment and technology from U. S. scientist Jeffrey Eerkens, who had worked on a classified U. S. government project researching laser enrichment. Eerkens latter said that the laser designs and the more than four lasers he sent to Iran were not suitable for enriching uranium; 130 Both of these wavelengths are suitable for enriching uranium.131

In support of their R& D efforts, Iranian nuclear specialists have received training from the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. 132 In 1991, up to 77 Iranian scientists, along with researchers from other developing countries, conducted advance nuclear research at the Trieste center, where they had access to a U. S.-made supercomputer and laser equipment. 133 Some of these scientists are among the 91 TNRC staff researching nuclear physics, chemistry, plasma physics, and laser technology. 134 Key personnel at the TNRC include: Chancellor Gholam Ali Afrooz; Mousavi Movahedi, vice-chancellor for research; H. Ghafourian, director; A. Owlya, deputy director; M. Naraghi, head of plasma physics; N. Banai, head of spectroscopy; E. Ziai, head of physical chemistry; F. Farnoudi, head of reactor research and development; M. Zaker, head of reactor research and operation; Fereydun Soltan-Moradi, deputy head of laser research; Ehsanollah Ziai, who headed the laser isotope separation program under the shah; and researcher S. M. Hamadani. 135

Tehran University has other affiliated institutes that could conduct research useful in a nuclear weapons program. The Electrotechnical Institute, run by M. Rahimian and Deputy Director A. Sabet, has a staff of 200 conducting electrical engineering research. 136 The Institute of Electric Engineering, headed by R. Mirghaderi, has a graduate research staff of 30. 137 With an annual R& D budget of approximately $700,000, the Institute of Electric Engineering's clients include Iran's Ministry of Post, Telegraph, and Telephones (PTT), Ministry of Defense, and Defense Industries Organization (DIO). 138

Assessment: Under the guise of seeking civilian nuclear technology, the TNRC is conducting a variety of R& D activities with military applications. Some of these, such as operating a research reactor and training a cadre of nuclear technicians, are consistent with the peaceful development of nuclear energy. In the absence of a large civilian nuclear power program, activities such as plutonium reprocessing and laser enrichment research are hard to justify unless they are for weapons-related purposes.

The TNRC has been, and remains, the center of Iran's plutonium reprocessing efforts. Although the hot cells and other lab-scale reprocessing activities there can produce only small amounts (0.6 kg per year) of plutonium, Iranian technicians could use the facilities to gain the scientific knowledge and competence necessary to operate a larger-scale plant. 139 Iran has already demonstrated an interest in acquiring further capabilities, having approached Argentina and China for reprocessing technology. 140 Despite these efforts, even small-scale reprocessing activities appear to be currently beyond Iran's technical competence. Furthermore, Tehran is years away from having the capability to build and operate a larger-scale separation plant. Recent Iranian procurement activities suggest that its plutonium reprocessing program is not a priority, possibly due to the sophisticated technical knowledge a reprocessing plant would require. Moreover, Tehran may be deterred by the IAEA's enhanced safeguard program, called 93+ 2, which will make it more difficult to hide a clandestine reprocessing plant due to the distinct isotopic signatures of elements released during the process.

If Tehran were to build a secret plutonium reprocessing facility, it would need a supply of unsafeguarded spent fuel to feed it. Although Iran could attempt to divert safeguarded spent fuel from its research reactors or the Bushehr plant, scheduled to begin operating in 2000, large quantities could not be diverted without being detected by the IAEA inspection regime. Iran could also try to procure spent fuel on the black market. However, there are no documented cases of significant amounts of spent fuel being smuggled internationally, and without an indigenous source of spent fuel, Iran's nuclear weapons program would be at the mercy of smugglers.

A more likely scenario would be for Tehran to secretly build a research-sized heavy water reactor for producing spent fuel with a high plutonium content. Not only do heavy water reactors produce relatively more plutonium in their spent fuel than light water reactors, they can burn natural uranium fuel, obviating the difficult step of enriching the uranium fuel. Tehran's approach to Argentina for heavy water and fuel fabrication technology may have been in preparation for commencing such a program. This would be a long-term objective, however, as Iran does not have a facility to produce heavy water or fabricate nuclear fuel and does not possess the capability to build and operate a reactor of even modest size.

In addition to plutonium, nuclear weapons can be built using highly enriched uranium. Iran has pursued both paths to the bomb, hoping that at least one of the programs would succeed. Although the Ibn-e Heysam Research and Laboratory Complex's production facilities are impressive on paper, the uranium enrichment program using laser isotope separation technology has not been successful. LIS technology, which has not been mastered by many of the most developed countries, is probably beyond Iran's technical and scientific capacity. The need to keep the research secret further inhibits Iran's scientific growth in the nuclear field. Tehran may continue research on advanced laser technology, however, because it has military applications other than uranium enrichment.

Iranian attempts to acquire the capability to weaponize a fissile material stockpile have been equally rudimentary. Although Iran has some equipment which could be used in a weaponization effort, it lacks much of the sophisticated dual-use measurement equipment that building a nuclear weapon requires. Furthermore, given its lack of technical experience, Iranian nuclear weapon designs would be limited to simple fission devices that are low yield (about 15 kilotons), heavy, and cumbersome. However, Tehran does have the technical capability to produce the non-nuclear components of the weaponization package. The University of Tehran's electrical-related research institutes could be used to develop some of these components.

Sharif University of Technology Tehran's Sharif University of Technology is an important nuclear procurement front and R& D center. Western intelligence officials allege that the Physics Research Center (PHRC) is the site of attempts to produce fissile material and the German intelligence agency Bundesnachrichten-dienst (BND) lists it as an Iranian procurement front. 141 The PHRC is where Iran has tried to buy or build uranium enrichment centrifuges since at least the early 1990s. Such activities likely involve key personnel at Sharif, including: president Saed Sohrabpour; Abdullah Afshar, vice-president of research; Davood Rashtchian, chemical engineering department chair; Hossein Zadeh, metallurgical engineering department chair; and Abbas Anvari, physics department head. 142

Following a strategy similar to Iraq's and Pakistan's nuclear development programs, Iran has attempted to acquire a uranium enrichment capability by purchasing centrifuge components piecemeal from Western European suppliers. Tehran established a network of front companies to procure dual-use and prohibited items, with Sharif University as the intended destination. As part of this program, they have used design information for Urenco G-1 and G-2 type centrifuges which the BND said was obtained through Pakistan. 143 In 1991, Sharif University officials tried to buy specialized ring magnets from the German firm Thyssen, but were rebuffed because the end-user was not specified. 144 The officials then approached Germany's Magnetfabrik Bonn (MFB) about "alnico" (a combination of aluminum and nickel) type ring magnets, which can be used in gas centrifuges. 145 When questioned, MFB officials admitted that they had sold Iran ferritic ring magnets since 1993, but denied the deals included either alnico magnets or Sharif University. 146 The MFB officials added that Germany's Federal Export Control Office (BAFA) approved the ferretic ring magnet deal because the devices could not be used for enriching uranium. Also in 1991, Germany's Leybold corporation negotiated the sale of a vacuum arc furnace with Said Kareem Ali Sonhani, an official at the Iranian embassy in Bonn. 147 Leybold further negotiated the sale of vacuum pumps to a university in Tehran from 1990 to 1991, although these may not have been delivered. 148 Another supplier of the Iranian program is the company Karl Schenck of Darmstadt, which sent at least one balancing machine to Sharif University before canceling the rest of the order. 149 The balancing machine, which can be used to produce gas centrifuges, was sent after Schenck was assured in writing that it would not be used for military purposes.

Iran procured equipment for its gas centrifuge development program from other Western suppliers as well. In 1991, several British firms sent Sharif University a supply of fluorine gas, which is used to make UF6 to feed a centrifuge plant. 150 In August of that year, Reza (Ray) Amiri and Mohammed (Don) Danesh were arrested for selling to Iran an oscilloscope purchased from the U. S. firm Tektronix. 151 U. S. federal prosecutors allege that Amiri and Danesh also sent Iran logic analyzers and pulse generators. 152 Swiss companies may have supplied Iran with gas centrifuge technology in 1991 as well. 153 Additionally, Iran acquired electrical discharge machinery (EDMs) from the Swiss firms AGIE and Charmilles Technologies in 1993. 154 EDMs cut heavy metals with a high degree of accuracy and can be used to produce gas centrifuge components and to fabricate nuclear fuel.

These activities raised concerns that Tehran has an active nuclear weapons program and is seeking gas centrifuge technology. The proposed Russian supply of an enrichment plant (see Bushehr) heightened this concern. However, Russia has denied that its contract to complete work at Bushehr has anything to do with the supply of centrifuges. 155 Russia has the world's largest centrifuge enrichment capability which uses a relatively unsophisticated design, meaning that Iran could conceivably reverse-engineer them or gain clandestine assistance for its centrifuge program. The proposed centrifuge deal was especially worrisome considering the poor economic situation in Russia and the existence of many unused centrifuges and centrifuge components there. 156

In addition to the PHRC, Sharif University has other centers that conduct R& D potentially applicable to a nuclear weapons program. The Electronics Research Center, headed by Mahmoud Tabiani, conducts research of electronic circuit and systems communication, as well as design and development of microcomputers. 157 It has a staff of 12 researchers and seven technicians, who could work on the non-nuclear electronic parts of a nuclear weapon. 158

Assessment: Iranian activities at Sharif University, including attempts to acquire equipment that could be used to build gas centrifuges, is a clear indication that Tehran has an active nuclear weapons program. Despite these efforts, evidence suggests that Iran does not yet have a centrifuge enrichment facility, even on a laboratory-scale. While Tehran has made some progress, it does not possess sufficient quantities of vital production equipment and materials such as maraging steel, and the program appears to have stalled since 1993. The tightening of export controls in supplier countries following revelations that Iraq was close to building a nuclear weapon has greatly hindered Iran's ability to acquire this material. Even if Tehran were able to build a small enrichment facility, operating the complex centrifuges may be beyond Iran's scientific and technical capability without external assistance, at least over the short-term. External assistance from a knowledgeable partner such as Russia or China, however, could allow Iran to build and operate an experimental-scale enrichment facility.

The focus of Tehran's current program is on developing and bench-testing gas centrifuges; these activities are likely being conducted at Sharif University. 159 These efforts do not specifically violate Tehran's safeguards obligations because they have not reached the threshold of having to be reported to the IAEA. It is not likely that Iran has a supply of UF6 gas or has enriched uranium in centrifuges, which require reporting under Iran's safeguards agreements. If it were to build a lab-scale enrichment facility or to enrich uranium, such activities would have to be reported to the IAEA.

Iran could attempt to build a clandestine enrichment plant separate from its safeguarded facilities once it masters centrifuge technology. This would be a long-term objective, as Tehran is years away from having the capability to build even a small, safeguarded, centrifuge plant. In addition to building and operating the centrifuges themselves, a secret enrichment facility would require an unsafeguarded supply of UF6 gas. Iran does not yet have even a safeguarded UF6 conversion plant (see Isfahan), nor does it have the ability to build a clandestine one. In short, Tehran will not have the capability to build an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment plant using gas centrifuges for many years, unless it receives large amounts of clandestine foreign assistance.  

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