The latest report from the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency contains several positive surprises related to Iran’s nuclear program, including a slowdown in development of a reactor designed to produce plutonium.
In their quarterly report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Wednesday announced as expect that since their last report, Tehran has continued to expand its nuclear enrichment program despite international condemnation. In particular, it has boosted the number of older-model centrifuges at its Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant to 15,416. More concerning, Iran also has put into place more than 1,000 advanced centrifuges, further heightening its ability to produce nuclear fuel, though they are not yet up and running.
The newly added capacity has allowed Iran to produce 744 kg worth of uranium enriched to the 5 percent level since the last report. Despite that expansion, however, the amount of further enriched uranium that Iran actually possesses has actually slowed in growth. Since May, only an additional 48.5 kg have been added to its stockpile of nuclear material enriched to 20 percent. More surprising, only 3.8 kg of that amount counts as an increase towards its total of amount of uranium hexaflouride, which can be enriched to higher levels.
Instead, Iran has been busy converting its 20 percent stockpile into uranium oxide, which is then used in constructing fuel plates. These fuel plates, while not impossible to enrich further, make it extremely difficult to do so. Given that the technology required to produce highly enriched uranium — about 90 percent enrichment — is a small step from that required to reach the 20 percent threshold, the international community has been much more concerned about this stockpile than the overall total fuel possessed. Approximately 250 kilograms of highly enriched uranium is required to create one nuclear weapon and it seems that Iran is taking extra precaution to stay a safe distance from that number.
Also surprising is that Iran has vastly underperformed in its stated goals in getting its Arak heavy water reactor up and running. According to the IAEA, Iran has made only 10 fuel assemblies the reactor would need, despite wanting to have completed 55 at this point. Because of that setback, it is delaying the commissioning of the reactor. Western governments are likely breathing sighs of relief over this decision, as once completed the reactor would be able to produce plutonium, which is much easier to divert for military purposes.
The report does, however, state that the IAEA is still unable to resolve outstanding questions regarding the potential military dimensions of Iran’s program. To that end, the IAEA lists several steps that Iran could take to break the impasse, including allowing for more information sharing between the Agency and Iran. The U.N. and Iran are set to next meet in discussion over the unresolved issues on Sept. 27.
Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies still believe that Iran has not made a decision to pursue a nuclear weapon at this time and today’s report is unlikely to change that assessment. “It is unlikely, at this point, that Iran could dash toward further enrichment to weapons-grade without the IAEA detecting Tehran’s activities,” the Arms Control Association said in their analysis of the new report.