Ex-IAEA Official: Flaws in the Deal — Iran Could Still Have a Nuclear Bomb Within 2 Months

What does a former deputy director of the IAEA think of the deal the United States (as part of the P5+1 group) reached with Iran — to restrict Iranian nuclear activities for six months, while some sanctions against Iran are eased?

“This is not a roll-back of the program. No enrichment capability is dismantled. But it is a temporary halt of many of the elements of the program,” says Olli Heinonen in an interview.

Dr. Heinonen, who is from Finland, spent 27 years at the International Atomic Energy Agency. He is credited with identifying as a danger A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani who was traveling from country to country, selling nuclear knowhow.  Heinonen was also notably critical of his former boss, Mohamed elBaradei, the Egyptian who headed the IAEA for a dozen years until 2009. The hint was that elBaradei was too soft on Iran.

Olli Heinonen (photo from Harvard U.)

Olli Heinonen (photo from Harvard U.)

Heinonen, as head of the IAEA’s Safeguards department, was able to visit nuclear facilities in Iran many times. He is certainly one of the world’s leading experts on Iran’s nuclear work — and one of the few who are very knowledgeable yet able to speak openly. Heinonen, after all, is now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

“The agreement says that Iran will not build new facilities, but I would have preferred to have a statement included that Natanz and Fordow are the only ones existing or under construction,” he says. “I also welcome the monitoring of Iran’s yellowcake production, with the understanding that the yellowcake imported or produced until now will be subject to monitoring.”

Concerns have been raised because Iran’s semi-industrial-scale enrichment capacities and its stockpile could be further enriched to weapons-grade uranium.

“Indeed. With its current inventory of 20%-enriched uranium, it would take about two weeks in its new centrifuges to produce enough weapons-grade material for one nuclear device.

“If Iran uses 3 to 5%-enriched uranium as feed material at all 18,000 of its currently installed, old-generation IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow, the same result would be achieved in two months.

In terms of stockpiled enriched uranium, Iran has more than 7 metric tons of 3 to 5%-enriched uranium. This amount translates to roughly the amount of fissile material for about four bombs.

A more attractive route to break out for Iran is a covert route. A covert facility with 3,000 more advanced IR-2m centrifuges using 20%-enriched uranium would require less than two weeks to produce one bomb-grade amount of fissile material.”

So how long will it take Iran to produce a nuclear weapon?

“Weapons-grade UF6 still has to be turned into uranium metal, components of the weapon have to be machined, and a nuclear device assembled. This would take about a month or two. At this stage, one would have a crude nuclear device — which could be delivered, for example, by a jet fighter, as was the plan of Pakistan at the time of its nuclear test in 1998.

“Obama has set, as his red line — [the limit] for Iran’s nuclear capability — a nuclear device fitted on a missile. That capability appears to be at least one year away.

The Arak heavy water reactor, unless its construction is truly stopped, is likely to come online by the end of 2014. Would this reactor contribute to Iran’s ability to produce plutonium?

“Pakistan, India and Israel have used similar reactors to produce plutonium for their nuclear weapons. The Arak reactor could produce more than one bomb’s worth of plutonium on an annual basis.

“Once the reactor starts operation, it becomes highly radioactive since the spent fuel it churns out will contain fission products and plutonium. Iran would also need to build a reprocessing plant to extract plutonium from the spent fuel. While there is no present indication that Iran is building such a facility, Iran did conduct plutonium separation experiments in the early 1990s.

“There may still be ways to modify the Arak reactor so that it would produce less plutonium. Since Iran has stated that the reactor will be used for the production of medical isotopes, it could be modified to a more proliferation-friendly and smaller-sized light water reactor.

“At this stage, the most reasonable way forward is to freeze the construction the IR-40 reactor, including the manufacturing of fuel and of reactor components, and to halt the production of additional heavy water pending the completion of any final agreement.

“To sum up, the measures taken by the agreement regarding Arak are good, but I would have also included the manufacturing of key components in the deal.” 

December 12, 2013

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