Chief obstacle to Iran's nuclear effort: its own bad technology
Continuing technical challenges mean Iran is still probably 3 to 5 years away from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Diplomats should exploit that leverage.
Long before the mysterious Stuxnet computer virus struck an apparent blow at Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran’s nuclear effort was being delayed by a far more mundane problem: bad technology.Skip to next paragraph
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The technical hurdles that Iran continues to face with its nuclear program help explain why US officials say Iran is still 3 to 5 years away from acquiring the bomb. This provides time and leverage for diplomatic approaches to be pursued.
Bad centrifuge design
The most fundamental problem with Iran’s enrichment program appears to be its own centrifuge design. Called the P-1 after a Pakistani mock-up of a Dutch design pilfered in the 1970s, the centrifuge that Iran has been attempting to operate is known to be temperamental and fault-prone. Centrifuge technology is already a very difficult process to master, since it requires constructing complex machinery at precise specifications to allow the cylindrical devices to spin at supersonic speeds, day in and day out. Reverse engineering faulty, smuggled equipment, as Iran has tried to do, only makes this challenge worse.
In fact, during an Arms Control Association briefing last month, former inspections chief Olli Heinonen said Iran’s P-1 centrifuge “seems to be a cul-de-sac,” stating that many of the delays Iran has experienced most likely “has to do with the design itself.” Iran’s own efforts to try to develop a better replacement seem to bear this out, and those efforts have been stalled in the R&D phase for years. “They are still struggling with the final design and have limitations in getting raw materials,” Mr. Heinonen said about that replacement effort.
Running at half capacity
So in spite of making the development of gas centrifuge enrichment technology a national priority, Iran is currently only able to run about half of the 8,500 centrifuges that it has installed at its Natanz plant. The machines that Iran has been able to run only operate at about 60 percent of their capacity, and Tehran has repeatedly had to replace broken-down centrifuges with new ones.
Replacing centrifuges is not a trivial issue, either. Iran still needs access to high-quality materials and components produced to very specific parameters. Its smuggling network to acquire such goods is sophisticated, but increasing international support for UN sanctions has helped to cut off some of Iran’s procurement pathways.