Taking a page from the North Korean Handbook for Successful International Diplomacy, Iran has recently announced that it is inaugurating a new addition to its Ardakan Yellowcake Production Plant. The facility will handle the processing of the 60 some-odd tonnes of uranium excavated from the nearby Saghand uranium mine after the latest international round of unsuccessful nuclear negotiations. Because this isn’t going to inflame tensions or anything.
Both the Ardakan production facility — in the central province of Yazd — and the newly opened Saghand uranium mine located 120km away are the largest of their kinds in the country. The rough uranium ore is first excavated from 335m below the surface, then trucked to the Ardakan facility. There, it is crushed into a powder before the economical uranium is leached out with the application of sulfuric acid and other solutions, resulting in a coarse, insoluble powder, U308 uranium ore concentrate, that contains roughly 80 per cent uranium oxide.
The processing facility is expected to mill up to 120,000 tonnes of powder and produce up to 60 tonnes of the finished substance annually, according to state media reports. The yellowcake (which should be noted, is neither yellow nor cake) is then fed into a series of centrifuges for further refinement to the relative level necessary for electricity generation or, potentially, weaponisation.
Ardakan has been at least partially functional for more than a decade. It was originally built in secret in 2003, with help from the Chinese. Its existence was disclosed the same year by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an opposition group within the country, and confirmed by the Iranian government that September. While Mohammad Ghannadi-Maragheh, Vice President for Nuclear Fuel Production of the Atomic Energy organisation of Iran (AEOI), claimed that the facility would be brought online for a pilot production run of 40 to 60 tons in 2004, satellite imagery examined by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) in 2004 and again in 2008 showed no evidence of the plant being active. That changed in 2009, when imagery exposed new construction at the plant and new excavations at the mine.
“In the past, we depended on others to provide us with yellowcake [specifically, the 600 tons it got from the South Africans in the 1970s] but with the grace of God, (uranium) mines were inaugurated one after another,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a televised speech.
In all, international estimates put Iran’s natural reserves of yellowcake at nearly 4000 tonnes. It should be noted that the Bushehr VVER-1000, the Soviet-made 1000 MWe reactor that Iran is supposedly refining this ore for, requires about 140 tonnes of yellowcake annually to operate. That’s triple what Ardakan’s projected output will be but quite enough to convert it into U-235, a fissable material Iran proved capable of making in 2010 at its Isfahan uranium conversion facility. This enriched uranium could then conceivably be weaponised. But what on Earth would Iran want with a nuclear weapon?