Nuclear Power in Iran
(Updated May 2013)
- A large nuclear power plant has started up in Iran, after many years construction, and been grid-connected.
- The country also has a major program developing uranium enrichment, and this was concealed for many years.
- Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities, or its work on heavy water-related projects, as required by the UN Security Council.
Iran produced 203 billion kWh gross in 2009 from some 48 GWe of plant, giving per capita consumption of about 2000 kWh/yr. Some 70% of its 2009 electricity was from gas and 25.5% from oil, both of which it has in abundance, and it get some from hydro when available. It plans to boost generating capacity to 73 GWe by 2016, with some 3 GWe for export to the Gulf states.
Nuclear power developments
In 1957 a civil nuclear program was established under the US Atoms for Peace program.
In 1974 the Shah announced a target of 23,000 MWe of nuclear capacity to free up oil and gas for export. Preliminary agreements with Siemens KWU and Framatome for four nuclear power plants were signed.
In 1975 construction of two 1,200 MWe PWR units was started 18 km south of Bushehr on the Persian Gulf by Siemens KWU. The contract was actually signed in mid 1976 and some $3 billion paid. After the Islamic revolution, further payment was withheld and work was abandoned early in 1979 with unit 1 substantially complete and unit two about half complete. The plant was damaged by Iraqi air strikes in 1984-88.
At Darkhovin, close to the Iraq border, there were also two French 910 MWe units which in January 1979 had just started construction under a $2 billion October 1977 contract with Framatome. These were cancelled in April 1979, and their engineering components were retained in France, being built there as Gravelines C, units 5 & 6, which came on line in 1985. In 1992, the Islamic Republic of Iran signed an agreement with China to build two 300 MWe reactors at the Darkhovin site, similar to those at Qinshan in China and Chashma in Pakistan, but China withdrew before construction started.
An agreement between the Iranian and Russian governments on building a 2-unit nuclear power plant was signed in Moscow in August 1992. This covered both construction and operation of the plant. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) insisted that the project should make full use of the structures and equipment already at Bushehr. In 1994, Russia's Minatom agreed with AEOI to complete unit 1 of Bushehr nuclear power plant with a VVER-1000 unit, using mostly the infrastructure already in place, and a contract was signed in January 1995.
The Russian contractor faced major challenges and an approach to Germany for help was rejected, leaving it to certify and document a lot of unfamiliar bits of equipment. All the main reactor components were fabricated in Russia under a construction contract with Atomstroyexport, based on the V-320 design, but designated V-446 signifying adaptation to the Siemens parts and also high seismic rating. The 1000 MWe (915 MWe net) plant constructed by Atomstroyexport had a succession of construction and start-up delays, and as late as 2007 the project was almost abandoned. All work was under IAEA safeguards and operation is also under safeguards. Some 47,000 pieces of equipment passed scrutiny by Atomstroyexport, another 11,000 seemed to be in working order but the specifications and manuals to them were missing and needed to be restored. Meanwhile, since the 1975 construction start, the nuclear safety requirements in Russia and internationally had become more stringent. Some German parts being integrated into the Russian design therefore required significant upgrades. According to a local report, 24% of the parts are German in origin, 36% are Iranian-made while 40% are Russian-made.
The original plans had two desalination plants, each of 100,000 m3/day capacity, linked to the reactors, but the Russian project dropped these.
After two years delay due to Iran's reluctance to agree to returning used fuel to Russia without being paid for it, two agreements were signed early in 2005 covering both supply of fresh fuel for the new Bushehr nuclear reactor and its return to Russia after use. The Russian agreement means that Iran's nuclear fuel supply is secured for the foreseeable future, removing any justification for enrichment locally.
Russia's Atomstroyexport by the end of January 2008 had delivered the 163 fuel assemblies for the initial core of Bushehr plus 17 reserve ones - 82 tonnes of fuel in total. The fuel is enriched 1.6% to 3.62% and is under full international safeguards. The Russian government had withheld supply as negotiations over Iran's uranium enrichment activities proceeded. As of September 2009 the reactor was reported to be 96% complete and testing had begun earlier in the year. Fuel loading was expected by October, with first power soon after, but further delays pushed this to 2010, then to 2011. Atomstroyexport delivered the first one-third core reload by air from TVEL in May 2011 - about 30 tonnes of fuel which will be needed after about 18 months operation.
The reactor was finally due to start up in February 2011 and to "reach first power" in April, and fuel had been loaded by the start of December. However, late in February before starting up it was found that a pump had failed and possibly shed metal particles into the primary cooling system, which could damage the fuel elements. The fuel therefore had to be unloaded, checked and cleaned, and any debris removed from the pressure vessel. The pump concerned was one supplied in the 1970s and was part of the old equipment required to be used under the terms of the Russian contract. Eventually the reactor started up on 8 May 2011, was grid connected early in September 2011, and was expected to enter commercial operation about April 2012, but latest estimate is for May 2013. It was reported to be at 75% capacity in late March, 94% in early May, and it reached 100% at the end of August 2012.
In October 2012 the fuel assemblies were unloaded and put into the spent fuel pond after only two months irradiation, apparently due to indications of some metal fragments in the cooling water remaining from the earlier pump problem. The reactor was reloaded and restarted in December. However, apparently the IAEA was not fully informed of the situation, which caused some international concern about what was happening and why. It was reconnected to the grid in January 2013.
The preliminary agreement states that the first reactor of Bushehr nuclear power plant would be operated by a 50-50 Russian-Iranian joint venture during the one-year warranty period. In August 2010 it was agreed that this JV would operate the plant for up to three years before Atomstroyexport gradually withdrew. However, in September 2011 after grid connection, Rosatom said: "According to the Iranian legislation, only a national company can be an operator of the nuclear power plant", hence Russian specialists would be invited to work under a contract to be awarded by the Nuclear Power Production and Development Company of Iran (NPPD), with their numbers gradually reducing. In May 2012 the first deputy director general of Rosenergoatom Vladimir Asmolov said that all operations related to the reactor equipment control and operation were being carried out by Russian specialists. “There is not a single Iranian operator at Bushehr,” he said. He explained that the Iranian party had signed an agreement with a Rosatom affiliate, Atomtechexport, which operates the reactor unit. However, Iranian operators have been trained in Russia.
The anticipated 7 TWh/yr from the new reactor will free up about 1.6 million tonnes of oil (11 million barrels) or 1800 million cubic metres of gas per year, which can be exported for hard currency.
Nuclear power reactors
||MWe gross, net
||915 MWe net
Despite high-profile and serious disagreements with IAEA over uranium enrichment, the IAEA continues full involvement with Iran on nuclear safety issues, focused on Bushehr. However, Iran is not a party to the IAEA Convention of Nuclear Safety - it is the only country with an operating nuclear reactor that is not a party to it.
The AEOI originally said that construction of unit 2 at Bushehr was to proceed and that feasibility studies for a further 5000 MWe had been ordered. Then in December 2008 it said that the next step would be two new 1000 MWe plants nearby, with Bushehr unit 2 shelved. In May 2012 a 1000 MWe unit 2 at Bushehr was again announced, with construction involving foreign contractors to begin by March 2014. Russia obtained agreement from AEOI that this would be built from scratch, without trying to integrate it into the German-built structure. It is likely to be a similar VVER-1000 (V-392) without the special adaptations to Siemens design.
The Nuclear Power Production & Development Company of Iran (NPPD), closely associated with AEOI, had invited bids in 2007 to construct two large third-generation PWR nuclear reactors - 1000 to 1600 MWe each - near Bushehr, to come on line about 2016. It is not known whether any bids were received. The government has made proposals to Rosatom regarding building further reactors, and these were still being considered at the end of 2011. Russia had noted that intergovernmental agreements would need updating and refining.
In May 2007 the AEOI said it was planning to build an indigenous 360 MWe light water reactor at Darkhovin/ Darkhoveyn on the Karun River in Khuzestan province in the west, close to Iraq at the head of the Gulf. Two Framatome 950 MWe plants were about to be built here in 1970s, and two 300 MWe Chinese plants were planned in the 1990s. The head of NPPD denied that these new ones would use Chinese technology and in October 2008 announced that their design would begin shortly and be completed in six years. In 2011 AEOI said that it planned a 360 MWe plant there, and that its design was well underway, and in May 2012 AEOI said the design of the light water reactor was finished. A further announcement in February 2013 confirmed planning intention for a 360 MWe plant. The IAEA has requested, but not been given, design information on this proposed plant.
A February 2013 announcement also said that 16 sites had been selected for new nuclear plants to be built over the next 15 years.
Nuclear power reactors planned and proposed
Iran is tectonically active, and nuclear power plants there need to be designed and built accordingly with high seismic criteria. In April 2013, following a magnitude 6.3 earthquake near Bushehr, the Gulf Cooperation Council met and expressed concern about possible radiation releases from the Bushehr nuclear plant. The six GCC Arab states had previously urged Tehran to ensure its facility complies with international safety standards and to join the IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety.
Iran has a major project developing uranium enrichment capability. This program is heavily censured by the UN, since no commercial purpose is evident.
The antecedents of this go back to 1974, when Iran loaned $1.18 billion to the French Atomic Energy Commission to build the multinational Eurodif enrichment plant at Tricastin, and it secured a 10% equity in the enterprise, entitling it to 10% of output. The loan was repaid with interest in 1991 but the plant has never delivered any enriched uranium to Iran since the new government in 1979 cancelled its agreements with Eurodif and ceased payments to it. But in 1991 Iran revived its nuclear power ambitions and demanded delivery of its share of uranium under original contract, but this was refused by France due to political sanctions then being in force. Iran views this refusal as proof of the unreliability of outside nuclear supplies and cites the Eurodif experience as the basis for achieving energy independence by developing all of the elements of the nuclear fuel cycle itself. The AEOI still holds the 10% share in Eurodif. Its 10.8 million SWU plant operated by Areva started production in 1979 and closed in mid 2012.
In about 2000 Iran started building at Natanz, 80 km southeast of Qom, a sophisticated enrichment plant, which it declared to IAEA only after it was identified in 2002 by a dissident group. This is known as the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP), and is above ground, but also at Natanz a large underground Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) is being developed. Operations at the PFEP, FEP and the uranium conversion plant (UCF) are under international safeguards, though monitoring is constrained. To May 2010, environmental samples confirmed that both enrichment plants were operating as declared, FEP producing less than 5.0% enrichment. However, in February 2010 about 1950 kg of low-enriched uranium from FEP was taken to PFEP.
At PFEP, two cascades have been designated for production of LEU enriched up to 20% U-235, ostensibly for the Teheran Research Reactor (TRR), and the balance of the plant is designated for R&D.
One cascade enriches from 3.5% LEU to almost 20%, while the second one takes the tails from the first one and produces about 10% LEU with tails of less than 1% uranium-235. The enriched stream is fed into the first cascade. In total, some 1177 kg of the 3.5% LEU from FEP has been fed into these, and 150kg of 19.75% enriched uranium has been produced from the start of operations to February 2013.
The IAEA earlier responded that the PFEP operations now " required a full revision of the previous safeguards approach". This was agreed in May 2010, including enhanced surveillance and checks. . On 23 June 2011 the head of AEOI said: "We have the ability to produce 5 kg (of 20% enriched uranium) each month, but we do not rush." He had earlier said that the TRR required 1.5 kg of fuel per month. In August 2011 he confirmed that Iran had more 20% LEU than it needed for the Tehran research reactor, and that “security measures required that the sensitive part of the facilities would be transferred to underground buildings” - evidently Fordow. The IAEA reported then that monthly production rates of 20 percent LEU had increased significantly, implying better performance of the two IR-1 cascades.
International concern regarding the surge of activity in enrichment to about 20% U-235 is based on the fact that in terms of SWU (energy) input this is about 90% of the way to weapons-grade material, and thus would require only a small and possibly clandestine plant to bridge the gap.
The PFEP at Natanz started operating in 2003, and by 2006 a 164-centrifuge IR-1 cascade had produced 3.6% enriched material. Two other cascades were being installed, IR-2 and IR-3, and a 10-machine IR-4 cascade followed by mid-2009. To mid-August 2009, about 140 kg of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) had been fed into various cascades of four types, producing uranium enriched to less than 5%. The IR-1 machine is the local version of Pakistan's P1 centrifuge design, and Iran is undertaking R&D on a variant of the more advanced P2 design. A few of these new design centrifuges designated IR-2, IR-3 and IR-4 are installed, but output is intermittent. In February 2013 there were 171 IR-2m centrifuges installed and with 193 IR-4, six IR-6 and two IR-6s centrifuges being fed intermittently at PFEP. The IR-2m is reported to be at least three times as efficient s the IR-1.
At the main underground FEP at Natanz,
production hall A is being set up with eight units (A24-A28
initially, A21-A23 later), each of 18 cascades with 164 IR-1
centrifuges - total 2952 each unit. In August 2010 the IAEA
reported that over 30.7 tonnes of UF6 had been fed
into FEP, and 2803 kg of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride (3.5%
U-235) had been produced. The target capacity is said to be 54,000
centrifuges. In February 2013 there were 12,699 centrifuges in 74
cascades plus 3 partially installed, and 53 cascades were operating
(8992 centrifuges). A total of 8271 kg of low-enriched
UF6 (3.5% U-235) had been produced at FEP, from
over 82 tonnes of UF6 feed, and the rate was
steady at 236 kg/month. Capacity is about 6887 SWU/yr. About 1557
kg of this had been used to make the 19.75 % enriched
In January 2013 Iran informed the IAEA that it proposed to install
IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz.
In September 2009, after the fact was exposed internationally, Iran told the IAEA that it was building another enrichment plant at Fordow, about 20 km north of Qom, in an underground tunnel complex on a military base. This Fordow FFEP is designed to have 8 cascades each of 174 IR-1 machines in each of two halls. Evidently construction began in 2006, and in November 2012 it had four IR-1 cascades (two sets tandem) operating, each 174 machines (so 696 centrifuges), producing 19.75% enriched uranium at a rate of 10.25 kg/month. Four further cascades have been installed and ready, and a further eight cascades with equipment in place but not installed.
Progress and plans
Over 2009-10 the Iranian centrifuge program was set back by the Stuxnet computer virus which affected Iranian companies involved with the control systems for the IR-1 centrifuges. In late 2009 to early 2010 about 1000 centrifuges at FEP were decommissioned. This appears to have been due to Stuxnet affecting frequency converters and causing the motors to over-speed, destroying the units. The normal failure rate of the IR-1 centrifuges is reported as about 10% per year.
The underground Fordow enrichment plant (FFEP) is evidently playing a larger role in producing 19.75% enriched uranium, using the well-proved IR-1 centrifuges. This positions Iran to stockpile a large amount of 19.75% LEU in a facility better protected against military strikes.
With almost 10,000 centrifuges operating, most at 0.76 SWU/yr but some at 0.97 SWU/yr each, according to ISIS, the total is about 9000 SWU/yr capacity. The actual figure going into 2013 could be greater.
Thus at both PFEP and FFEP Iran had produced 232.8 kg of 19.75% enriched uranium to November 2012, and this was ongoing at about 15 kg/month. This far exceeds Iran’s needs for the Tehran research reactor. About 260 kg of that material could be turned into 56 kg of weapons-grade uranium with input of only 1800 SWU.
Uranium Resources and Mining
In the early 1980s Iran purchased 450 tonnes of uranium (531 t U3O8) from South Africa. Some 366 t of this was subsequently converted to UF6 at Esfahan. This is the main, or possibly the only, material being used in Iran's enrichment plants.
Iran has very small reported uranium resources, all in a high cost category, about one third as reasonably assured and two thirds as inferred resources. It is reported to have significant levels of molybdenum and other impurities which create difficulties in enrichment. AEOI is responsible for uranium mining and treatment.
The only mining and milling so far is at Gchine or Gachin, near the port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. The ore is in surficial salt plugs at 0.20 %U grade, accessed by open pit. The Bandar Abbas Uranium Production Plant (BUPP) began production from Gachin ore in 2006, and operations continue, to produce about 20 tU/yr. This is delivered to the conversion plant at Isfahan.
An underground mine has been developed at Saghand in the central desert region of Yazd province, and AEOI announced commencement of production there in April 2013. Resources of 900 tU at 0.055% U are quoted. The associated Ardakan mill about 75 km west of Saghand is expected to produce 50 tU/yr.
In February 2013 AEOI announced that uranium resources had increased to 4000 tU from 1527 tonnes. No details were given.
Other parts of fuel cycle, R&D
A uranium conversion plant (UCF) at the Isfahan Nuclear Technology Centre has 200 t/yr capacity and started up in 2004. It is under IAEA safeguards and the IAEA reported that to February 2009 it had produced 366 tU as UF6, ie 541 tonnes of UF6.
The Teheran Nuclear Research Centre was established in 1967 by the AEOI. It has a US-supplied 5 MW pool-type research reactor which has operated since about 1967. The IAEA monitors the Teheran Research Reactor (TRR) and also a Molybdenum, Iodine and Xenon Radioisotope production facility (MIX). Since being converted from 93% HEU about 1988 by Argentinian specialists, the TRR runs on 19.75% enriched uranium, and 116 kg of this was supplied from Argentina about 1993 - enough for 10-20 years depending on how the reactor is operated. This had nearly run out in 2009. It was earlier said that the presence of molybdenum in Iranian UF6 means that domestic supplies may be unsuitable at this level of enrichment, but this is unconfirmed.
In 2009 it seemed likely that Russia might provide some further uranium for TRR fuel blended down from 36% enriched material and fabricated in France, in exchange for an equivalent amount of Iran's (< 5%) enriched uranium from Natanz. This was rejected by Iran, which then tabled a revised version. At issue was the amount of Iran's uranium stockpile to be handed over at one time, and where this would occur. The international negotiators wanted to do this exchange in one large shipment, while Iran preferred several smaller swaps which maintained more of its overall holding for a longer period. In February 2010 the government ordered the AEOI to commence enriching Iranian uranium to 19.75%. It is not clear whether the Isfahan fuel fabrication plant can make fuel elements for TRR.
In May 2010, a deal with Brazil and Turkey was announced and submitted to the IAEA whereby Iran would ship 1200 kg of 3.5% enriched uranium to Turkey, and then receive 120 kg of 19.75% enriched uranium fuel elements for the TRR in return from the so-called Vienna Group, comprising the IAEA, USA, Russia and France. This apparently did not proceed.
The Nuclear Technology Center of Isfahan operates four small nuclear research reactors, all supplied by China. The Center is run by the AEOI. In April 2013 the AEOI announced plans for a new research reactor at Bonab in East Azerbaijan province.
IR-40 heavy water reactor
Iran is also building a 40 MW heavy water-moderated "research" reactor at Arak fuelled by natural uranium. It is declared as being to replace the old Teheran reactor. The IR-40 design is very similar to those used by India and Israel to make plutonium for nuclear weapons, and was apparently designed by Russia's NIKIET. Construction is under way and the incomplete plant was "inaugurated" in August 2006. In August 2009 it was about 63% complete, with the reactor vessel due to be installed in 2011. In July 2011 AEOI reported it as 75% complete. Iran has said that it will be under IAEA safeguards, and has been subject to IAEA inspection during construction. However, in August 2012 the IAEA noted that “the lack of up-to-date information on the IR-40 Reactor is now having an adverse impact on the Agency’s ability to effectively verify the design of the facility and to implement an effective safeguards approach.” No design information for the IR-40 reactor had been provided since 2006.
A heavy water production plant is operating at Arak, but the IAEA is denied access to it.
A fuel manufacturing plant has been constructed at Isfahan to serve the IR-40 reactor and possibly Bushehr and TRR. In May 2009 the IAEA noted that fuel rods were being produced and that an initial fuel assembly for IR-40 had been produced from these. In 2012 production of natural uranium oxide fuel pellets continued.
A plant for making research reactor fuel plates for TRR was expected to be commissioned about the end of 2011, and in August 2012 the IAEA said that ‘a small amount’ of the 19.75% enriched uranium had been used thus.
In June 2010 the AEOI announced that it planned to build four new research reactors for production of medical isotopes, including a 20 MW one to replace TRR when its operational life finishes in 15 years. This plan would justify production of more 20%-enriched uranium at Natanz, which gives rise to international concern.
Iran joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970 and concluded its safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 1974. It has signed the Additional Protocol to this safeguards agreement but has not ratified it.
All Iran's facilities, except the Kalaye plant and the Arak heavy water plant, were under IAEA safeguards as of mid 2003. Details are in the Director-General's report to the IAEA Board of 6 June and 9 September 2003, and subsequent reports such as those to 23 May and 15 November 2007 on IAEA web site.
Iran originally attracted world attention in 2002 when some previously undeclared nuclear facilities became the subject of IAEA inquiry. On investigation, the IAEA found inconsistencies in Iran's declarations to the Agency and raised questions as to whether Iran was in violation of its safeguards agreement, as a signatory of the NPT.
An IAEA report in November 2003 showed that Iran had, in a series of contraventions of its safeguards agreement over 22 years, systematically concealed its development of key techniques which are capable of use for nuclear weapons. In particular, that uranium enrichment and plutonium separation from used fuel were carried out on a laboratory scale. Iran admitted to the activities but said they were trivial.
In August 2005 the IAEA Board called upon Iran to suspend work associated with uranium enrichment. In March 2006 the IAEA referred the issue to the UN Security Council, which in 2006 required that “Iran shall without further delay suspend . . . all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.” However Iran has not backed off from its activities in developing uranium enrichment.
On 24 March 2007 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution imposing further sanctions on Iran and reaffirming that Iran must take the steps required by the IAEA Board, notably to suspend its uranium enrichment activities. The IAEA reported in May 2007 that Iran had ceased providing information required under the Additional Protocol.
The IAEA stated clearly in November 2007 and since that unless the Additional Protocol was ratified and in place it is not possible for the Agency to establish that undeclared nuclear materials and activities are absent. Its "knowledge about Iran's current nuclear program is diminishing." Meanwhile enrichment continues, the existence of the underground and undeclared Qom plant has come to light, and hence a third UN Security Council resolution is likely.
The Iran situation has revived wider concerns about which countries should develop facilities with high proliferation significance - such as enrichment and reprocessing, even under safeguards if there is no evident economic rationale. At some point in the future, such a country could give three months notice of withdrawal from the NPT and reconfigure its facilities for weapons production. The USA asserts that Iran has been in fact developing just such a breakout capability.
This contention was supported in February 2010 when the government ordered the AEOI to commence enriching Iranian uranium to 19.75% for the Teheran Research Reactor (TRR), thereby significantly closing the gap between its normal low-enriched material and weapons-grade uranium. The 1950 kg of low-enriched uranium (< 5%) moved to PFEP would be enough for vastly more 19.75% enriched uranium than the TRR could conceivably use. In August 2011 the AEOI confirmed that Iran had more 20% LEU than it needed for the Tehran research reactor, and that “security measures required that the sensitive part of the facilities would be transferred to underground buildings” - evidently Fordow.
See also Nuclear Proliferation Case Studies paper.
OECD NEA & IAEA, 2006, Uranium 2005: Resources, Production and Demand
Institute for Science & International Security, 2009, Nuclear Iran: not inevitable; Jan 2009.
Institute for Science & International Security, 2010, IAEA Iran Report, 18 Feb 2010.
Institute for Science & International Security, 2010, Did Stuxnet Take Out 1,000 Centrifuges at the Natanz Enrichment Plant? Preliminary Assessment, 22 Dec 2010.
Institute for Science & International Security, 2011, Stuxnet Malware & Natanz, 16 Feb 2011.
ISIS Nuclear Iran web site
AEOI, late 2011, Nuclear Industry in Iran (booklet).
Khlopkov, Anton & Lutkova, Anna, August 2010, The Bushehr NPP: Why did it take so long? Centre for Energy & Security Studies, Moscow. www.ceness-russia.org