Iran Enriches Closer to Weapons Grade as Monitors Flag Sites
(Bloomberg) -- Iran enriched its stockpile of uranium closer to levels needed for a weapon for the first time in eight years, as international inspectors reported they detected traces of the heavy metal at previously undeclared sites.
The findings published in two International Atomic Energy Agency reports underscore the difficult road ahead for diplomats trying to defuse an escalating nuclear crisis. With Tehran and Washington at loggerheads over how to return to a 2015 deal, Iran is rapidly advancing its nuclear activities even as new questions arise among investigators looking into places where work may have occurred decades ago.
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi “stressed to the government of Iran his concern at the lack of progress in clarifying the safeguards issues,” read a five-page restricted report seen by Bloomberg. His inspectors stand ready to “engage Iran in a proactive and focused effort to break the impasse.”
The Argentine chief of the Vienna-based agency returned from Iran on Sunday after winning a three-month compromise which allows his inspectors to partially retain their broader monitoring powers. Ending all access under the IAEA’s so-called Additional Protocol could have pushed the standoff closer to a military tipping point by raising suspicions over Iran’s nuclear work.
Most of Iran’s current enriched-uranium stockpile is held in gaseous form, where it can be run through cascades of centrifuges at short notice. Those machines, which spin at supersonic speeds, separate the uranium-235 isotope required to set off the chain reactions in power plants and bombs. Typically, nuclear weapons use uranium enriched to 90% purity
The inspections concession from Tehran could create room for diplomacy. The Biden administration has said it’s willing to meet with Iran to discuss a way forward in efforts to return to the multiparty nuclear accord abandoned by President Donald Trump. But Iran is so far insisting it will only talk once the U.S. has lifted the sweeping sanctions that have battered its economy.
Laboratories studying samples taken from several sites in Iran said tests detected man-made uranium particles, according to the report. Their investigation involves experiments believed to be conducted some two decades ago, including work on a metal disc made of natural uranium ore. Inspectors resumed their probe into Iran’s past atomic work following Israeli tips generated by documents smuggled out of the country.
“The process is ongoing and hasn’t yielded positive results until now,” Grossi said of the investigation earlier on Tuesday during an online briefing.
Iran accumulated 17.6 kilograms (38.8 pounds) of uranium enriched to 20%, a level used in reactors but which is also closer to the purity required for producing weapons. Its overall store of enriched uranium increased to 2,967.8 kilograms from 2,443 kilograms in the previous quarter, according to the restricted report. Iran’s stock of heavy water exceeded set limits by 1.4 kilograms.
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