A new report released on Thursday by the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that the growth of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has continued apace ahead of renewed negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
Since the release of the last report by the IAEA’s Governor-General in November 2012, Iran has increased its stockpile of uranium enriched to a 20 percent level by about 43 kilograms. While Iran has restarted its conversion of some of that stockpile into uranium oxide gas and other forms that are difficult to further enrich to fuel medical research at the Tehran Research Reactor, the associated reduction didn’t counter new enrichment enough to show a decrease in overall levels.
The concern surrounding Iran’s uranium stockpile is not that it’s currently usable in a nuclear weapon — for that it would need to be enriched to 90 percent level, making it highly-enriched. However, the technology required to produce 90 percent enriched uranium is a small step from that required to reach the 20 percent threshold. Approximately 250 kilograms of 90 percent uranium is required to create one nuclear weapon, an amount that Iran has been careful not to reach.
Compounding misgivings about Iran’s nuclear program, however, is the news that its heavy-water reactor based in Arak is slated to become operational in early 2014. Unfortunately, the new reactor has the potential to produce plutonium as a by-product of its usage, which would only add to suspicions about the nature of Iran’s program. Plutonium can still be used in civilian reactors, but lower amounts are necessary to produce simpler — but lower-yield — nuclear weapons than those that utilize uranium. Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies still believe, however, that Iran has not made a decision to pursue a nuclear weapon at this time.
Adding to the unfortunate news contained in the IAEA report, Iran today announced that it has begun installing more advanced centrifuges in its main enrichment facility Nanatz. The Iranian government had previously informed the IAEA of its plans to do so weeks ago, but started the actual work of getting the equipment into place today. However, today’s IAEA report does indicate that the exact same number of centrifuges remain operational at Natanz as in November, despite an increase in the number fully installed.
All of this heightens the pressure upon negotiators from the P5+1 — the United States, United Kingdom, China, France, Russian Federation, and Germany — ahead of their restarted talks with Iran next week in Kazakhstan. Reuters has reported that the group will present Iran with a new package of “substantial and serious” offers to Iran during the negotiations, including eased sanctions on gold and other precious metals.