Iran has nearly depleted the stockpiles of uranium it imported in the 1970s, and its own uranium mines hold only small quantities of lower-grade ore, according to a recent news leak. Western states have now launched a diplomatic push to urge all uranium-exporting countries not to sell to Tehran.
Diplomatic sources believe that Iran’s stockpile of yellow cake uranium, produced from uranium ore, is close to running out and could be exhausted within months. Countries including Britain, the U.S., France and Germany have started intensive diplomatic efforts to dissuade major uranium producers from selling to Iran.
Before Christmas, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sent out a confidential request for its diplomats in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Brazil, all major uranium producers, to lobby governments not to sell uranium products, specifically yellow cake, to Iran. Iran’s stock of yellow cake, acquired from South Africa in the 1970s under the Shah’s original civil nuclear power programme, has almost run out. Iran is developing its own uranium mines, but does not have enough ore to support a sustained nuclear programme.
The request, news of which emerged after an international investigation by The Times, was part of a drive by six countries — Britain, the US, France, Germany, Australia and Canada — to choke off supplies of uranium to Iran. It is a move that, while unlikely to cripple any effort to develop a bomb, would blunt its ambitions and help to contain the threat, authoritative sources said.
Western intelligence sources reportedly believe that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are “potential weak spots in the supply chain.” The Democratic Republic of Congo is thought to be a possible illegal exporter of uranium as well. Furthermore, the UK has lobbied Brazil, a large uranium producer, not to do business with Iran.
Although it is estimated that Iran possesses enough material to build several dozen bombs, the dwindling supplies may cause the country to shut down production plants in 2009:
To reach weapons-grade uranium-235, Iran would have to produce a highly enriched fuel, and that requires thousands of centrifuges. It is estimated that 200kg of yellow cake could produce 1kg of weapons-grade (94 per cent enriched) uranium. About 20kg of highly enriched uranium are required for one bomb.
Iran, which has always claimed that its nuclear programme is peaceful, acquired several thousand tonnes of yellow cake from South Africa during the mid-1970s shortly after the Shah initiated the country’s original push for civil nuclear power. Tehran also has two small uranium mines but they are costly to run, yield only small quantities of ore and are suffering from problems with purity.
Last May, a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggested that around 70 per cent of Iran’s available yellow cake had been converted to uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas at a conversion plant in the city of Esfahan. David Albright, founder of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said that Iran now had enough of this gasified uranium, stored in canisters weighing 10-14 tonnes each, to produce as many as 35 bombs, but it may run out of yellow cake to keep feeding the plant by the end of the year.
With global warming arousing renewed interest in nuclear power by governments worldwide, the number of uranium mines has increased rapidly in recent years. This expansion of supply has fueled concerns about the possibility of successful uranium smuggling operations by Tehran:
Mining operations are already carried out in nearly 20 countries including Canada, Australia, Russia Namibia, Ukraine, China and Pakistan and in the past year alone new mines have been proposed in a string of countries from Zambia to Uruguay and Jordan to Sudan. Monitoring this trade is a challenge in itself but there are also growing fears over the danger of nuclear smuggling.
In 2005, Iran tried to smuggle some Uranium 238 by ship from Congo to Bandar Abbas, but this was foiled by Tanzanian customs officials. Peter Rickwood, an IAEA official, said: “Nobody is quite sure how much of that stuff is being exported. There have been persistent rumours about uranium coming out of the DRC and going to North Korea or Iran. Yes, we are concerned about that.”
If true, the report and the subsequent diplomatic push should be a needed boost for nuclear non-proliferation efforts toward Iran.
Peter Cassata is associate editor of the Atlantic Council.