Why IAEA access to uranium mines in Iran is important

Uranium in yellowcake formOlli Heinonen, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center, offers a short explanation of the necessity for IAEA monitoring of Iranian uranium mines.

By Olli Heinonen

The Joint Plan of Action provides the IAEA with “managed access to uranium mines and mills” in Iran.1 This is one of the many steps required to remove the ambiguities regarding Iran’s nuclear program. On January 29, IAEA inspectors exercised this clause of the JPA, visiting Gcchine uranium mine and milling facility near Bandar Abbas in southern Iran.

Why is such access important? Under Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, there is no obligation for Iran to report the production of “yellowcake” from its mines as long as the uranium oxide it extracts has not reached a level of purity suitable for uranium enrichment or fuel fabrication. During the last two decades, a number of states exploited similar loopholes to bypass the IAEA verification scheme for their respective clandestine uranium conversion programs and other experiments. This loophole was already identified as far back as the early 1990s. As a result, access to uranium mining and milling facilities—without nuclear material verification and reporting obligations—was included in the provisions of the Additional Protocol to the safeguards agreement as a measure to broaden IAEA safeguards. Iran has not ratified the Additional Protocol and has only ever provisionally implemented it for a short period of time, ending in 2006.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, celebrates Iran's first domestically mined raw uranium

Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, cuts a ribbon during a ceremony, as a truck is seen behind him, containing Iran's first domestically mined raw uranium.

Associated Press

According to the latest OECD/IAEA report on global production of uranium, Iran has extracted more than 40 tons of uranium from Gcchine. This is not a trivial amount. If ten tons of such material is converted to uranium hexafluoride (gaseous form) and further enriched, this could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single nuclear device. Therefore, the voluntary undertaking by Iran to provide the IAEA access to Gcchine, Saghand and Ardakan facilities and letting the IAEA verify all of Iran’s uranium holdings will be an opportunity for Iran to reduce doubts about the nature of its nuclear program.

The IAEA verification process also requires a complete understanding of Iran’s mining activities. In other words, Iran must provide the IAEA with verifiable information about the historical extraction of uranium from ores in Iran, domestically produced or imported, as well as the current whereabouts of those uranium stocks. The findings of the IAEA from its January 29 visit to Gcchine will be included, with reports on visits to other similar locations, in a report due out by the end of February. 

1. "Managed access" is IAEA jargon for a visit by inspectors to a nuclear or nuclear related installation. During a managed access inspectors have limited access to site, where the operator can shroud, inter alia, commercially sensitive information. During such access, inspectors are not verifying amounts of nuclear material but looking at the technical features of the installation to confirm the absence of undeclared activities. However, the access has to be “managed” in such away that the inspectors can still meet their verification objectives.

Olli Heinonen is a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.