This week, the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, its main decision making body, will meet in Vienna for its last quarterly meeting in 2010. There are three main items on the agenda: Iran, Syria, and creating an international nuclear fuel bank. In a Q&A, Mark Hibbs explains that while new outcomes are not expected on Iran and Syria’s nuclear programs, the United States is preparing to call for a vote on the fuel bank, which is likely to pass despite opposition from some developing countries and members of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Does the recent IAEA report on Iran provide new revelations about Iran’s nuclear program?

During the last board meeting in September, Iran upbraided the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for continuing its seven-year investigation of its nuclear program, but IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and the new chief inspector, Herman Nackaerts, refused to back down.

In September, Iran and the IAEA fell out over outstanding allegations and evidence that Iran has engaged in nuclear weapon-related research since the 1980s. Still, the IAEA report on Iran provided to the board two weeks ago does not present any new findings on this issue and Iran continues to defy Amano’s urgings to address the substance of these allegations. According to the report, Iran continues to routinely operate its centrifuge enrichment plant at Natanz and has accumulated just over three tons of low-enriched uranium. All of the enriched uranium has been accounted for by the IAEA.

There was one surprise in the report, however. For a brief period of time during the last two months, the Natanz plant was unexpectedly idle. The IAEA does not know why the Natanz plant was halted. This week, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that the plant had been attacked by a computer virus. Some experts have speculated that Natanz may have been deliberately targeted with the virus, allegedly from one or more government intelligence agencies aiming to cripple Iran's enrichment program.

This was not the first time that uranium enrichment was interrupted at Natanz. On at least two previous occasions since the plant began operating in 2007, the supply of uranium hexafluoride (UF6)—the feedstock for the uranium enrichment process—to the centrifuges was cut off because Iran had to exchange the feed canisters holding the gassified uranium. Since then, Iran has retrofitted the plant with a second port for feeding uranium into the centrifuges, so Iran would not have to interrupt the operation of the plant when a feed canister was empty.


Does Ahmadinejad’s confirmation that Natanz was hit by a computer virus suggest that Iran's centrifuges are vulnerable to cyber attacks and other incursions?

The centrifuges at Iran’s nuclear plant are probably more vulnerable than enrichment programs in advanced countries. The Iranian centrifuge installed at Natanz, called IR-1 or P-1, is based on the design of an early Dutch centrifuge developed by Urenco, a European uranium enrichment firm. Design information for this centrifuge was stolen by Pakistan in 1973. The design of this centrifuge, however, was not frozen when the blueprints were purloined by Pakistan and at the time Urenco engineers were still having some problems with the centrifuge.

According to European centrifuge engineers, there were unresolved issues concerning equipment which adversely affected the balance of the centrifuge. When Pakistan attempted to build this centrifuge many of the machines failed and Pakistan abandoned the P-1 in favor of a more capable model, G-2 (this design data was also stolen from Europe). Pakistani scientists gave the P-1 design to Iran, where its problems have persisted. In addition to machines installed and operating at Natanz, Iran has built a few thousand P-1 centrifuge rotors which are believed to be faulty and many centrifuges at the site are idle.

It is not known how well protected Iran's centrifuges are from outside disturbances. If they are not well protected, then software designed to interfere with the operating speeds of the centrifuge could possibly disenable them.

While Urenco and other established enrichers have programs to combat cyber attacks as well as other incursions, it’s doubtful that the Iranian installation is as well protected. In 2005, a severe storm cut off the power supply to an entire Urenco centrifuge plant in Germany. Due to the engineering support systems which were built into the plant not a single centrifuge was lost after power was restored and the centrifuge plant was restarted. Iran probably doesn’t have these defense systems in place.

In 2009, Iran told the IAEA that it intends to build a new centrifuge enrichment plant at Fordo. But the latest report to the board indicated that the Fordo site will not serve as a large-scale enrichment plant but will be used for research and development. This may mean that Iran, like Pakistan, will abandon the P-1 centrifuge for future projects and will instead develop a more powerful model, IR-2, which Iran has declared that it has set up only in very small numbers and has carried out single-machine tests.

To explain the apparent lack of progress by Iran on IR-2, experts speculate that Iran has encountered design problems or material procurement problems for this centrifuge. If so, Iran may not be ready to significantly expand its centrifuge population for several years. The revelation this month however that North Korea has apparently recently erected an enrichment plant there based on centrifuges resembling G-2 prompts questions about whether Iran and North Korea have cooperated in this area and whether Iran’s IR-2 program may be farther along and clandestine.


Will the IAEA board take action on Syria’s nuclear program?

During the last board meeting and in the subsequent months, Western country diplomats have urged Amano to call for a special inspection in Syria. One recent press report implied that Amano might request Syria to host such an inspection soon.

Syria's relationship with the IAEA has deteriorated even further since the last board meeting. After talks were held earlier this year between Syria and the IAEA to further investigate preliminary information that particles of processed uranium were found at a small research reactor in Damascus, Syria and the IAEA agreed to a so-called action plan to resolve the matter and proceed with the investigation. But since then, discussions have broken down over implementation—and the issue remains stalled.

Still, it is unlikely that either Amano or the board will press the issue of a special inspection in Syria at this week’s meeting. Western governments continue to urge Amano to do so. The board is also unlikely to take action in light of the harsh attack against Amano and Western states in September by members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), especially Arab states. They urged the IAEA to take Syria at its word that an installation in Syria which was destroyed by Israeli aircraft in 2007 was not a clandestine nuclear reactor under construction, as both Israel and the United States assert.


Will the IAEA board agree on a recommendation to create an international fuel bank? Why are Western states pressing forward with a vote?

During his tenure, Mohammed ElBaradei, Amano’s predecessor as IAEA director general, had proposed setting up a reserve bank of enriched uranium that gives states which are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) access to reactor fuel should suppliers refuse to provide them fuel for political reasons. One year ago, Russia put forth a similar proposal to set up a multilateral enrichment enterprise in Siberia in cooperation with the IAEA. This was narrowly passed by the IAEA board against the bitter opposition of many developing countries and NAM members.

Proponents of the IAEA fuel bank argue that it would discourage nuclear newcomer states from rushing to develop indigenous uranium enrichment programs. During and after ElBaradei's tenure, the non-profit Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), European Union, United States, Kuwait, Norway, and United Arab Emirates agreed to pay over $150 million to establish the fuel bank, which might be located in Kazakhstan.

So far the proposal has not been embraced by Amano. Since taking office, Amano has been listening carefully to developing countries who view the fuel bank as a tool to discourage them from establishing their own indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. Some developing countries are concerned that a nuclear fuel bank could undermine their right under the NPT and the IAEA statute to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and could prevent countries with uranium reserves from profiting by adding value to their uranium through enrichment and other processing activities.

But a group of advanced nuclear states, led by the United States, will likely introduce a resolution to the board this week to approve the establishment of the fuel bank. The matter could be decided by a simple majority vote and the United States and other advanced countries in favor of the proposal believe they have the votes on the 35-member board to pass the measure. The fuel bank may obtain support from a few NAM states which aim to deploy nuclear reactors in the future and which this fall joined the board as non-permanent members.

Despite strong opposition from developing countries and NAM states, the West is pressing forward and wants to bring the matter to a vote now. NTI, which agreed to donate $50 million for the venture, set time limits on getting the project approved by the board for it to contribute funding. NTI has extended its deadline, but probably not indefinitely.

Proponents realize that Amano has fragile support in the boardroom—which was clear during the board meeting two months ago when NAM and in particular the Arab states challenged his authority. But if the United States and other supporters of the fuel bank further delayed calling for a vote, the proposal might have even less support in coming months should North-South acrimony in the boardroom increase. Many NAM states will likely oppose indefinitely the idea of the nuclear fuel bank, so the United States and other advocates see no reason to wait and try to gain additional support.