Iran’s Uranium Stockpile Swelled During Virus Pandemic Lockdown
(Bloomberg) -- Iran continued its elevated rate of nuclear-fuel production last quarter, even as the coronavirus pandemic forced it to shut down swaths of the economy and international inspectors sought answers about previous nuclear activities.
The country’s store of low-enriched uranium increased to 1,571.6 kilograms (3,465 pounds) over the quarter ending May 20, according to an International Atomic Energy Agency report seen by Bloomberg. That’s more than a 50% jump over the amount stockpiled three months ago, and enough of the heavy metal to create two bombs if Iran chose to enrich the material to weapons grade.
“The agency notes with serious concern that” Iran continues to deny access to two sites inspectors want to visit, where nuclear material may have been present in the early 2000s, read a restricted report circulated to diplomats in Vienna. “This is adversely affecting the agency’s ability to clarify and resolve the questions.”
The IAEA report follows last week’s U.S. decision to revoke waivers that permitted some companies to work on nuclear projects in Iran. The beleaguered 2015 agreement struck between Iran and world powers authorized firms to convert facilities so that they can’t be used to produce nuclear material for weapons.
The Trump administration delivered the accord a near-fatal blow by withdrawing and reimposing sanctions, including on Iran’s critical oil exports, escalating tensions between the foes. Iran responded by scrapping some of its obligations under the deal, including caps on its low-enriched uranium stockpile. European nations, China and Russia have stood by the agreement but the U.S. penalties mean it isn’t delivering Tehran the promised economic gains.
The IAEA reported in May that its roster of 269 monitors and analysts who focus on Iran triggered a record number of inspections last year. There were 1,103 person-days spent on the ground in Iran, combing through sites where Iran enriches uranium and generates nuclear power. The agency bolstered on-the-ground inspections with “more extensive and timely relevant present and historical images” captured by satellites, according to the document.
In a May 16 letter, Iran told the IAEA that it “is willing to satisfy the agency’s requests” to visit new sites but first needs to clear “some legal ambiguities and concerns,” according to the document.
Monitors are looking for proof of possible undeclared experiments with natural uranium in 2003, as well as conversion activities and storage of the uranium metal during the same period.
The agency continued conducting inspections “not just in Iran but all over the world” during the pandemic, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Friday during a press conference at IAEA labs just outside of Vienna. “We have been able to continue working.”
Monitors called 33 snap inspections last year. That figure fell from a record 40 in 2018 but continued to underscore the IAEA is still exercising one of its most potent powers won under the 2015 accord. Inspectors didn’t have the right to call surprise visits before the agreement.
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