Report: Iran’s Practical Nuclear Needs

July 14, 2014

            On July 14, quasi-official website published the most detailed report to date on Iran’s “practical needs” for nuclear energy and an explanation for why it wants its own fuel reactors. It explains the logic behind Tehran’s stated need of a industrial scale uranium enrichment capacity of 190,000 separative work units, announced by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei earlier in July. But the authors emphasize that industrial-scale enrichment will not be necessary until after 2021, when Iran's fuel supply agreement with Russia expires. The report comes less than week before the July 20 deadline for the world’s six major powers and Iran to negotiate a comprehensive agreement. The following is’s infographic followed by a summary of the report.

What Are Iran’s ‘Practical Needs’ and Why Does Iran Want to Fuel Reactors on Its Own?
            A new report prepared by the Iranian outlet offers fresh insight into Iran’s practical enrichment needs and explains why Iran wants to fuel reactors on its own. The report comes amid intense talks between Iran and the P5+1 to reach an agreement by the July 20th deadline of the Joint Plan of Action. It features detailed step-by-step calculations of Iranian nuclear fuel requirements in terms of Separative Work Units (SWU). The report also details the motivations for Iran’s drive to domestically produce fuel, based on an empirical approach that provides an overview of past experiences.
            In the report, the authors substantiate the fuel requirements of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), Iran’s sole light water power reactor, providing an estimate of 190,738 SWU. This figure does not account for minimal waste of 10%, thus emphasizing the conservative nature of the 190,000 SWU raised as Iran’s fuel requirement. However, the authors underscore that this capacity will not be needed until the expiry of Iran’s fuel supply agreement with Russia, which expires in 2021. At present, Iran’s current total capacity, including installed but not operating centrifuges, is over 22,000 SWU. The report also reveals that the fuel requirements of the nascent Arak reactor have not yet been determined as the plant’s configuration is still subject to discussion. However, the authors posit that the Arak reactor’s SWU needs are negligible in comparison to the BNPP. Lastly, the authors estimate the annual fuel needs of the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) at 830 SWU.
           The authors underscore that Iran will not need the capacity to fuel the BNPP until 2021, when the contract with Russia for fuel supplies expires. The report brings up four main motivations for Iran’s determination to end its reliance on a single source for fuel:
           Supply concerns; beginning with Iran’s experience of being denied a share of the output of European nuclear fuel consortium Eurodif, despite 10% ownership, the report proceeds with outlining a history of repeated disruptions in the supply of nuclear fuel to Iran. As the most recent example, the case of the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), for which Iran was denied fuel in 2009 – thus compelling it to produce its own fuel – is highlighted as a key event underpinning Iranian supply concerns.
           Cost of idle reactors; the report also discusses the cost of idle reactors. Citing an estimate by prominent U.S.-based nuclear scientist Frank Von Hippel, the authors argue that if Iran realizes its plan to build 20 reactors, the cost of a future fuel supply cut could cost Iran $4 billion per year.
           Meeting the need for industrial-scale enrichment; the report outlines industrial-scale enrichment as a technological objective, even if Iran decides to import fuel for additional reactors. Founded on Iranian supply concerns, the authors posit that developing industrial-scale enrichment capacity and know-how will allow Iran to power its own reactors while thwarting the effects of potential supply cuts in the future, if it decides to import fuel for additional reactors.
           Enhancing its fuel fabrication capability; the authors posit that producing fuel rods for nuclear power plants, which Iran is not currently engaged in, will equip Iranian scientists with the know-how to not only fuel all reactors on Iranian soil, but more importantly, step in should Iran decide to import fuel for additional reactors and one day be faced with supply cuts. The report also clarifies that Iran is engaged in long-term negotiations with Russia on cooperative arrangements for domestic production of fuel for the BNNP after the expiry of the current supply contract.
           The report also addresses the legal and safety aspects of Iran producing fuel for the BNPP on its own.
           In relation to safety matters, the report emphasizes that Iran now has experience of nuclear fuel production and related safety aspects. Pointing out that Iran has conducted safety tests on finalized fuel assemblies for the Arak reactor, the authors posit that fuel for the BNPP could also be irradiated at the TRR.
           In relation to legal matters, the authors underscore that Iran is already in long-term negotiations with Russia over domestic production of fuel for the BNPP. Bringing up the example of the cutoff in fuel for TRR and subsequent unilateral production of fuel for that reactor, the authors argue that Iran could legally manufacture fuel for the BNPP through minute alterations to existing fuel designs.
           Lastly, the authors argue that “with the contract to supply fuel for the BNPP set to expire in 2021, the need to have a meaningful enrichment program that is capable of providing for the country’s fuel needs is ever more pressing.” The report further warns against efforts to reduce “the Iranian enrichment program to a symbolic and meaningless program”, arguing that it would “mean the effective scrapping of the entire fuel cycle, which employs thousands of Iranian scientists”, while pointing to that the latter has provided Iran with “an opportunity to develop advanced technology with a multitude of peaceful applications.”
Click here for the full report.