Fact Sheet: Iran's Programs to Produce Plutonium and Uranium

December 1, 2003

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


Marshall Breit


Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Below are details on the current status of Iran's programs to produce plutonium and enriched uranium.


Iran's uranium enrichment program is more advanced than previously thought and Tehran maybe only a few years away from being able to produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) to make a nuclear weapon. On October 21, 2003, Iran announced that it would temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment activities.

Gas Centrifuge Enrichment
Work on Iran's uranium centrifuge enrichment program began in 1985.

  • Natanz
    Natanz is the location of a pilot and future commercial uranium centrifuge enrichment plant located approximately 200 miles south of Tehran. The existence of the facility was disclosed by the National Council of Resistance of Iran in August 2002, and first visited by the IAEA in February 2003. The Natanz site contains buildings both above and below ground and covers approximately100,000 square meters.


-Pilot Plant The pilot plant is comprised of six buildings that upon completion later this year, will house approximately 1,000 centrifuges. As of February 2003, there were approximately 160 operational machines in place at the facility and components for another 820 awaiting assembly. Between March and May 2003, the IAEA took environmental samples before nuclear material was officially introduced at the facility. These samples revealed particles of highly enriched uranium (HEU). Iran attributed the sample results to the contamination of imported centrifuge components. In June 2003, Iran officially introduced uranium hexafluoride (UF6) into a single centrifuge for testing purposes. On August 19, Iran began testing a small, ten-machine cascade. Upon completion, the pilot plant could produce between 10-12 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium annually. Despite Iran's October pledge to suspend its enrichment activities, construction and installation work at this site is ongoing.

  -Large-scale Commercial Plant The commercial plant is scheduled to start accepting centrifuges in 2005 and is comprised of three massive underground structures. The two largest buildings will house cascade halls and are expected to contain approximately 50,000 centrifuge machines. At full capacity, this facility could produce approximately 400-500 kilograms of weapon-grade material annually, or enough for 15-20 nuclear weapons a year.
  • Kalaye Electric Company
    This is a site of enrichment activities in Tehran. In February 2003, Iranian authorities acknowledged that centrifuge components had been produced and that machines had been assembled at one of the company's facilities. Iran denied however, that Kalaye was used for any sort of actual enrichment work. The IAEA requested access to the company's workshop, which was granted in May, but the agency was not permitted to take environmental samples until early August. Results from samples tested positive for traces of both highly enriched uranium (HEU) and lowly enrich uranium (LEU.) In October 2003, Iran conceded that a limited number of tests using uranium hexafluoride (UF6) had been conducted there in 1999 and 2002. These experiments reportedly involved 1.9 kg of UF6. Iran claims that it has not enriched uranium beyond 1.2% U-235 using centrifuges. It attributes the presence of HEU to contaminated centrifuge components that were imported. In response to IAEA requests, Iran has provided the agency with a list of imported components and the agency has taken new samples to verify these claims.

  • Esfahan Conversion Facility
    This facility is capable of converting uranium yellow cake into uranium hexafloride (UF6), uranium dioxide (UO2), and uranium metal. UF6 from this plant will presumably be shipped to Natanz for enrichment.

  • Jabr Ibn Hayan Lab- Tehran Nuclear Research Center
    This previously undeclared facility is known to have converted uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) into uranium metal. This is also the site where previously undeclared nuclear material from China - uranium hexafluoride (UF6), uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), and uranium dioxide (UO2) -is stored.

Reprocessing Experiments
In October 2003, Iran acknowledged that it had irradiated depleted uranium dioxide (UO2) targets at the Tehran Research Reactor. According to Iran, experiments took place there between 1988 - 1992 and involved pressed UO2 pellets prepared at Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center. These experiments used depleted uranium that had been exempted from safeguards in 1978. These experiments involved 7 kg of UO2, 3 kg of which was processed into separated plutonium.

Laser Enrichment
Iran has acknowledged that in the 1970s work began on lasers under the previous regime. For the last 12 years, Iran has been developing a laser enrichment program.

  • Lashkar Ab'ad
    This is a pilot plant for laser enrichment that was established in 2000. Laser enrichment experiments were conducted at Lashkar Ab'ad between October 2002 - January 2003 using 22 kg of natural uranium metal to produce small amounts (milligrams) of reactor grade enriched uranium (3-4 % U235). This uranium metal was part of a 50 kg shipment that was undeclared and is suspected to have come from the Soviet Union in 1993. Iranian authorities claim that all equipment at Lashkar Ab'ad was dismantled May 2003, and transferred to a storage facility at Karaj. On October 6, 2003, the IAEA drew environmental samples from the Lashkar Ab'ad plant. The results have not yet been reported.

  • Karaj
    This is a previously undeclared storage facility related to the laser enrichment program. Karaj contains dismantled equipment from Lashkar Ab'ad, laser enrichment waste, and approximately 28 kg of natural uranium metal.

Iran's plutonium program is less advanced than its uranium program but there are four known facilities currently planned or under construction that when complete, would allow Iran to manufacture material for use in nuclear weapons.

  • Arak Heavy Water Facility
    In August 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran disclosed the existence of a heavy water production facility under construction at Arak. This site was visited by the IAEA in February 2003.

  • Arak Heavy Water Reactor
    In May 2003, Iran announced plans to build a 40 MW thermal heavy water reactor at Arak. Construction on this reactor is scheduled to begin in 2004. This reactor will use uranium dioxide (UO2) and heavy water and will be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Iran claims this reactor is for R&D purposes and the production of radioisotopes for medical and industrial use. Drawings for the facility, however, contained no references to hot cells. When the IAEA confronted Iran about this, Iran stated that it has tentative plans to construct another building at Arak with hot cells for the production of radioisotopes. According to non-governmental estimates, the planned Arak reactor could produce between 8-10 kilograms of plutonium annually, enough for one or two nuclear weapons a year.

  • Esfahan Fuel Manufacturing Plant
    Earlier this year, Iran informed the IAEA of its intention to begin construction of a fuel fabrication plant at Esfahan. This plant will supply fuel for the Arak reactor and possibly also for the reactor at Bushehr.

  • Bushehr Reactor
    A light water reactor complex located southwest of Esfahan. In 1995, Iran signed a $800 million deal with Moscow to finish construction on one of the reactors, originally begun by Germany. This 1,000 MW reactor is scheduled for completion in 2005, and Russia plans to provide the reactor fuel. The first fuel shipment from Moscow is tentatively scheduled for mid-2004, but is contingent upon Russia and Iran reaching an agreement regarding the return of spent fuel. Iran has also implied that it hopes to produce its own fuel for the reactor.

Reprocessing Experiments
In October 2003, Iran acknowledged that it had conducted plutonium experiments in three shielded boxes in a hot cell at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center. The experiments took place between 1988 and 1992 and involved 7 kg of uranium dioxide (UO2) that was irradiated, 3 kg of which was processed into separated plutonium. The small amount of separated plutonium was stored in a laboratory of Jabr Ibn Hayan. The shielded boxes were reportedly dismantled in 1992.