New concerns as Iran works on uranium metal for reactor fuel

Tehran has breached the nuclear deal more regularly over the past two months in a bid to put pressure on US President-elect Joe Biden, analysts say.
Thursday 14/01/2021
Flags flutter in the wind in front of the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, December 16, 2020. (Reuters)
Flags flutter in the wind in front of the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, December 16, 2020. (Reuters)

VIENNA - Iran has started work on uranium metal-based fuel for a research reactor, the UN nuclear watchdog and Tehran said on Wednesday, in the latest breach of its nuclear deal with six major powers as the country presses for US sanctions to be lifted.

Iran has breached the deal more regularly over the past two months in a bid to put pressure on US President-elect Joe Biden, analysts say. Some of those steps were required by a law passed in response to the killing of its top nuclear scientist in November that Tehran blamed on arch-foe Israel.

But they are also a continuation of breaches Tehran began committing in 2019 in response to US President Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposition of US sanctions.

Iran’s recent moves raise pressure on Biden, who takes office next week and has pledged to return the United States to the deal if Iran first resumes full compliance. Iran wants Washington to lift sanctions first.

“(International Atomic Energy Agency) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi today informed IAEA Member States about recent developments regarding Iran’s plans to conduct R&D activities on uranium metal production as part of its declared aim to design an improved type of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor,” the IAEA said in a statement.

The agency issues ad hoc reports to member states when Iran commits a new breach of the deal, though it declines to call them breaches, leaving that call to parties to the 2015 accord.

The deal specifically imposes a 15-year ban on Iran producing or acquiring uranium metal, a sensitive material that can be used in the core of a nuclear bomb.

The IAEA’s confidential report to member states, obtained by Reuters, said Iran had indicated it plans to produce uranium metal from natural uranium and then produce uranium metal enriched up to 20% for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.

The deal also says that can only happen in small batches and in consultation with parties to the deal after 10 years.

Separately, Iran plans to enrich uranium to 20%, a level it last reached before the 2015 deal, at its Fordow site buried in a mountain, a process it began last week. It has so far only gone up to 4.5%, above the 3.67% limit imposed by the deal but still far short of the 90% that is weapons grade.

US intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons programme that it halted in 2003. Iran denies ever seeking nuclear weapons and says its aims with nuclear energy are entirely peaceful.

Iran told the agency on Wednesday, however, that “there is no limitation on (its) R&D activities” and “modification and installation of the relevant equipment for the mentioned R&D activities have been already started” at its Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant in Isfahan, the IAEA report said.