The Case of the “Missing” 19.8 kg of Iranian Uranium

I’m very pleased to host another guest post by friend of ACL, Dr. Yousaf Butt.  This blog is devoted to discussions about international law related to arms control. However, as any lawyer knows, an understanding of key facts is essential to proper legal analysis. This is where Yousaf comes in. He is a highly qualified nuclear physicist, and frequently helps us by bringing his technical and scientific expertise to bear in order to clarify important technical issues that are relevant to legal analysis. In this post, Yousaf explains recent allegations of unaccounted-for fissile material in Iran, which is of course a question that has direct bearing on safeguards law analysis.


The Case of the “Missing” 19.8 kg of Iranian Uranium

Dr. Yousaf Butt is senior scientific advisor to the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in London, on leave from the Cultural Intelligence Institute. The views expressed are his own.

Recently, I wrote for the National Interest on why the IAEA might be making so many mistakes on Iran’s nuclear file,especially regarding the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) dossier. I argued that the IAEA does not have much expertise in nuclear weaponry but that they seem to be good at their mandated job of nuclear materials accountancy. I may have been too generous.

The day before my piece came out the IAEA admitted making an accounting mistake of 100kg in Iran’s Low Enriched Uranium gas stock, and also a mis-counting error of 19 instead of 9 IR-6 centrifuges. But let’s not dwell on those errors – who hasn’t miscounted a few centrifuges from time-to-time?

Here I’d like to offer another case study from the PMD file. You will recall most of the PMD issues were already addressed here: from EBWs, to Parchin, to the AP graphs/calculations to ring magnets etc. – even the fleeting concerns with Po-210 was dealt with before also. None have stuck.

But there is yet another PMD issue I overlooked to address. Maybe this is the one that proves Iran is guilty, after all?

In the November 2011 IAEA report on Iran, one reads:

In August 2011, the Agency carried out a PIV [Physical Inventory Verification] at the Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Research Laboratory (JHL) to verify, inter alia, nuclear material, in the form of natural uranium metal and process waste, related to the conversion experiments carried out by Iran between 1995 and 2002. The Agency’s measurement of this material was 19.8 kg less than the operator’s declaration of 270.7 kg.

Footnote 40 on that page says: “This material had been under Agency seal since 2003.”

That in itself ought to have given the IAEA, government officials and the press some pause: if the material is under seal and the IAEA does not mention tampering then what is the problem? Would it not have been prudent to make clear that the drums had been sealed for about 7 years and what was in them obviously had not gone anywhere?

Never mind – pausing to think seems to have been too much to ask. Fredrik Dahl at Reuters repeatedly reported on this issue. For example in 2011, following the report:

“ [U.S. Ambassador Glyn] Davies also singled out a finding in last week’s IAEA report of a “discrepancy” of nearly 20 kg (44 lb) of nuclear material at a site in Tehran, the Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Research Laboratory. The report said U.N. inspectors carrying out an inventory check of natural uranium metal and process waste at the facility measured 19.8 kg less than the operator’s declaration.The IAEA said it was working with Iran to resolve the issue and Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, last week dismissed it as “absolutely not an issue.”

Davies said the issue required “immediate” resolution, citing information indicating that “kilogram quantities” of natural uranium metal had been available to Iran’s military program. “It remains to be seen whether this discrepancy could ultimately represent another piece in the puzzle the IAEA is assembling to show Iran’s nuclear weapons-related activities,” Davies said.

That certainly sounds like a concern.

According to Dahl, the issue was still unresolved by early 2012.

In mid-2012, U.S. Envoy Robert Wood made a statement on the Implementation of NPT on Iran:

In addition to our concerns with the Fordow facility, the Director General reports on other areas that require Iran’s immediate attention and clarification. For example, we note that the Agency has previously requested additional information in relation to a discrepancy of 19.8 kilograms of natural uranium metal in Iran; we are disappointed that Iran has not provided this information, particularly in light of our concerns regarding the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. We call on Iran to fully cooperate with the Agency in resolving this discrepancy.

But, by August 16 2012, the IAEA said that less was “missing” than they thought:

The United Nations’ atomic watchdog may decide that less uranium is missing at an Iranian research site than it had previously thought…..a European diplomat told Reuters it now seemed to have become less of an issue….The uranium discrepancy was likely to be “buried more than it is at the moment”, another diplomat said.

Interestingly, when a discrepancy is found it is leaked and announced publicly and repeatedly that it could be part of a nefarious military program – with Western diplomats chiming in – but when it is resolved the issue is “buried”.

This alleged “discrepancy” of 19.8 kg of natural uranium was first reported in November 2011 report. In each successive quarterly report the urgency subsides. However, the issue is never resolved for the public. It simply disappears. a.k.a. “Buried.”

Why not offer a public explanation instead of a burial? Since the IAEA has not, I will.

The discrepancy concerned an old estimated value of natural uranium contained in process waste which is a notoriously hard quantity to measure. When the waste was sealed both Iran and the IAEA agreed upon this estimate of natural U. Upon reopening the material in 2011 there was a new estimate that was different from the old estimate. It is very hard to count natural U in waste where you have very little idea what is in a sealed drum. There can be all sorts of unknown materials (like metals and plastics and other junk) that have unknown shielding properties hiding unknown quantities and qualities of fissile isotopes. But since the waste was under seal no material was ever missing.

However, the IAEA made a big deal out of their own discrepancy stopping short of accusing theft. As shown above, the US mission also made a major production of it along with the press. One could be forgiven for thinking that there are no technical advisors at the US mission.

In any case, when the discussions between the IAEA and Iran were finally undertaken the issue was clarified and both evidently agreed that the little bit of natural uranium in the process waste was accounted for. But by that time the presumed propaganda effect had run its course for many months.

This issue ought never have surfaced. As a point of order, a significant quantity (SQ) of natural uranium is 10 tons (10,000kg) of natural U.

So the IAEA made an issue of 20kg of (extremely difficult to estimate) natural U in process waste when a SQ of natural U is 10,000kg! The discrepancy was 0.2% of a SQ of natural U. 

The IAEA has never bothered to publicly acknowledge their error and mischaracterization of the non-missing “missing” 0.2% of SQ of natural U. And US diplomats proceeded to throw gasoline on this small ember provided by the IAEA. Reporters swallowed the apparent officially-sanctioned propaganda and went so far as to suggest that the non-missing natural U could have made it to Parchin! Other reporters suggested that the material could be used in warheads as-is.

Bottom lines:

  1. No nuclear material was ever missing: the material was under seal.
  1. The IAEA was irresponsible and unprofessionalin making an issue out of their own differing estimatesof extremelyhard to measure natural U in process waste which amounted to about 0.2% SQ. It should have been resolved with Iranian technicians without mention in a report which the IAEA knows would have been leaked to the press.
  1. Reopening this issue in 2011 at the same time and place as the weaponization (PMD) annex in the November 2011 report appears to have been intentional and political.
  1. The IAEA and US diplomats should have the professional integrity to publicly explain the resolution of the issue.
  1. There was gross incompetence in interpretation by the press. This could perhaps have been avoided by reaching out toexperts (outside the one or two who have been historically biased, and are associated with highly political organizations such as United Against a Nuclear Iranor the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies).

So we can add this hyped-up PMD non-issue on the heap of others addressed already.

This sad episode – still officially unresolved by the IAEA – speaks to IAEA’s unprofessionalism, unfairness, over-reach and politicized drift. Lesson-learned: be very wary of what you hear from the IAEA, Western diplomats and any press sources that simply regurgitate their views without sound critical technical analysis. Another lesson-learned: Iranian officials may sometimes be correct when they say certain PMD issues are trumped-up or forged.


7 Comments on “The Case of the “Missing” 19.8 kg of Iranian Uranium”

  1. Cyrus says:

    Amazing work Dr Butt.

    In addition to this “missing uranium” nonsense, for a few months the media also ran wild with the report that Iran had exceeded the 20% enrichment rate because some swipe samples had shown 27% enriched uranium.

    The true explanation for that — a known technical phenomenon — was never adequately explained, certainly not on par with all the screaming headlines about how “New suspicions were raised by IAEA report.” and even when explained, the conclusion was it was still a reason to doubt Iran.

    As a psychological matter, any correction made to the news coverage would of course come too late because once impressions are created, they can’t be edited away as can a news story. The impressions created by the false story in the minds of readers continues on, especially when the audience is already predisposed to believe that Iran is up to no good and is untrustworthy. This is just science

    • yousaf says:

      Thanks Cyrus. I should add that 27% business to my list of false PMD cries.

      Actually I wrote about the centrifuge “reflux” that led to the 27% (temp) enrichment when rebutting Olli (twice!) in Foreign Policy:



      Heinonen makes a big deal about the IAEA’s recent detection of uranium particles enriched to 27 percent at the Fordow underground enrichment plant in Iran. While this is well above the declared 20 percent enrichment level at the facility, the discovery is, in all likelihood, a technical glitch and not indicative of any sinister ploy. Indeed, the very detection of these particles is heartening in a way; that the IAEA could pick up “trace” amounts of such material should lend great credence to the IAEA’s role as the “tripwire” for any serious diversion or over-enrichment of nuclear materials in Iran. As Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies recently stated, “There are good reasons to worry about Iran’s enrichment work but this probably isn’t one of them.”

      But how could such a technical glitch have happened? There are several possibilities. When a cascade of centrifuges is started up, only a small amount of uranium hexafluoride gas is fed through the system at first. Because the system is only doing work on a small amount of gas, this material gets over-enriched, but only temporarily. When the remainder of the gas is added, the overall enrichment level gets blended down to the target figure — in this case 20 percent (19.75 percent, to be technically precise).

      Importantly, this issue has cropped up before in Iran, and also wasn’t a big deal then. In 2010, the IAEA detected “a small number of particles” at Iran’s Natanz facility enriched as high as 7.1 percent when the target level there was 5 percent. At that time, the IAEA noted that the detected over-enrichment refers to “a known technical phenomenon associated with the start-up of centrifuge cascades.”

      Of course, such transient anomalies need not occur only when firing up centrifuges. In fact, the possibility of over-enrichment exists any time the uranium hexafluoride gas feed is reduced, or any time centrifuge speeds are increased beyond normal levels. This latter scenario, of course, is exactly what the Stuxnet virus is reported to have brought about in the hopes of destroying the centrifuges. Just recently, a new and powerful virus called Flame was detected in the Middle East. While it’s unlikely, we can’t rule out the rather ironic possibility that viruses that alter centrifuge speeds may also play a role in producing such over-enrichments.


      Joshua Pollack also gets into some detail here and alternate scenarios:

  2. Saroj Nair says:

    I think that the IAEA ought to have provided a clarification in respect of the discrepancy that they found in the quantities of Iranian uranium. For more than a decade, Iran has been under suspicion of alleged nuclear activity and it is even more important that discrepancies should be properly investigated and carefully assessed before hyping the issue in the media, especially since it is like adding fuel to the fire of suspicion that is already in the global atmosphere regarding Iran. It is also surprising that so much ado was made about the missing quantity when a significant quantity, as mentioned here, is 10 tons (10,000 kg) of natural Uranium.

    I also agree that instead of burying the issue, the IAEA should have made a public declaration. This could contribute more to building trust among the other member states as well. The path the IAEA has taken in connection with this issue makes it look more like an agenda against Iran when actually the treatment meted out to all member states ought to be non-discriminatory.

  3. Michel Makinsky says:

    With regards to the disputed data,I have reminded elsewhere that in the the industry community/circles,we are used to address disagreements when one party opposes showing original data: both parties should appoint “neutral” mutually agreed experts .These would assess these documents under the umbrella of a confidentiality agreement and would deliver their opinion to parties.

    • Cyrus says:

      This would work if both sides were acting in good faith and wanted to resolve the issue. In the case of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, one side wants to hype it and ensure that it is NOT resolved, because the “Iranian nuclear threat” provides a convenient pretext for pursuing other aims — just as “WMDs in Iraq” had nothing to do with WMDs.

  4. Michel Makinsky says:

    Such a practice is specifically adapted to issues where one or several parties are not acting with good faith.Therefore, with regards to this current debate, if one party does not accept entering in such a way for solving this conflict,provided that such a proposal ( not the outcome) is significantly avertised, said party will be exposed to serious suspicion and its position will be weakened and will lose support.On the contrary, consenting such a neutral assessment will keep both parties’ reputation intact.The party which gets a negative assessment on its initial position, may ultimately be considered as both fair and of good faith due to its consent given to an assessment by a neutral panel.Here ,there is room for face-saving.

  5. Michel Makinsky says:

    Sorry for the typo. Read : will lose support.On the contrary,consenting….

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