Nuclear Program

Iran's Nuclear Program by the Numbers

Iran's Nuclear Sites

Currently under construction, Iran claims it is building a heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak for the purpose of producing medical isotopes. Nonproliferation advocates fear, however, that the 40-megawatt reactor would offer Iran a second, plutonium path to the bomb. According to some estimates, should Arak become fully operational, it would produce as a byproduct about 9-12 kg of plutonium per year, which if reprocessed, would be enough for 1-2 bombs annually.

The nuclear power plant at Bushehr is Iran’s only nuclear reactor currently operating. Though construction began in 1975, the civilian reactor did not come online until September 2011. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization reports that it operates at a capacity of 1,000 megawatts, and the Islamic Republic maintains a contract with Russia that will provide sufficient fuel for the reactor for 10 years. While Iran envisions using uranium from controversial enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow to feed the reactor, the Bushehr site does not itself pose a proliferation risk. 

Hidden underground near the holy city of Qom, the once-secret Fordow enrichment facility was first revealed by Western intelligence agencies in 2009. Because the site was constructed in secret and is nearly impenetrable to military attack, many in the U.S. government and elsewhere believe that it was constructed to produce high-enriched uranium (90% U-235) for an Iranian nuclear bomb. It has now been declared by Iran and therefore subject to IAEA inspections, but the closure or dismantling of Fordow remains a primary demand of Western governments. 

The uranium conversion plant at Isfahan is Iran’s central facility for converting yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the gaseous form required to feed spinning centrifuges at an enrichment plant. Isfahan is also the site of Iran’s largest missile production facility. Also at Isfahan, Iran maintains a light water research reactor to produce radioisotopes; a light water reactor used for training purposes; a heavy-water reactor used for research; and a fuel fabrication laboratory that produces fuel pellets suitable for use at Bushehr. 

The plant at Natanz is Iran’s largest enrichment facility and was once secret until its discovery by an Iranian opposition organization in 2002. Today, it houses the majority of Iran’s centrifuges, about half of which are producing low-enriched uranium. Along with Fordow, Natanz is a principal concern for nonproliferation advocates, who that Natanz’s large centrifuge capacity allows it to produce several bombs’ worth of enriched uranium per year. 

Long a point of contention between the Iran and the IAEA, the suspected military site at Parchin, just southeast of Tehran, is thought to have been at the center of nuclear weapons research and testing until at least 2003. The IAEA seeks access to the site, as well as more comprehensive accounting of Iran’s past activities at Parchin, though recent studies have revealed that Iran may be seeking to bulldoze the site before inspectors are invited to visit. 

Iran’s principal sources of natural uranium—the original state of uranium before it is converted to yellowcake, then gas to feed centrifuges at an enrichment plant—are mines at Saghand, Gachin, and Yazd. In October 2013, the IAEA signed an agreement with Iran that would allow inspectors to visit the site at Gachin in southern Iran.

In a February 10 accord, Iran granted the IAEA "managed access" to the Saghand mine and Ardakan concentration center, a uranium mill that processes ore from Saghand. Iran also agreed to allow inspectors to conduct a "technical visit" at Lashkar Abad Laser Center. Lashkar Abad is a once-secret pilot enrichment plant used for atomic vapor laser isotope separation. Though Iran admitted the facility's purpose and agreed to stop laser enrichment experiments in 2003, the government announced in 2011 that Iran "possessed" laser enrichment technology. Access to Lashkar Abad will help the IAEA determine the validity of this claim.