(Corrects enrichment increase in the headline and third paragraph of story published May 25.)
Iran increased its output of enriched uranium that world powers are concerned may eventually be used for a nuclear weapon, according to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
While the United Nations agency verified that Iran hasn’t diverted its declared nuclear material for weapons use, the inspectors reiterated past statements that they can’t give assurances that Iran isn’t concealing nuclear activities.
Iran increased its stockpile of 20 percent medium-enriched uranium by a third, to 145 kilograms (320 pounds), from 109 kilograms in February, the IAEA said today in an 11-page report. Iran had tripled its production of the material in the three months ending Feb. 24 from 73.7 kilograms in November.
IAEA inspectors reported they found the presence of particles of 27 percent-enriched uranium at Iran’s Fordo facility. The particles were a result of “technical reasons beyond the operator’s control,” Iran told the Vienna-based agency, which is looking into the matter. Uranium enriched over 20 percent is considered highly enriched, though most nuclear bombs use the heavy metal purified to 90 percent levels.
The report is the first since IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano returned from Iran on May 21 with a commitment from the Islamic republic’s government to improve cooperation with inspectors. While the Persian Gulf nation insists that its atomic work is peaceful, it has been under IAEA scrutiny since 2003 over evidence that it seeks nuclear-weapon capabilities.
The uranium particles enriched to 27 percent could be the result of a transient condition that can occur when the material is fed into centrifuges, according to two senior international officials familiar with the investigation. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
David Albright, a physicist and former weapons inspector, said the presence of the 27 percent particles is probably a glitch that resulted from Iran using a more efficient enrichment process.
The IAEA has previously found uranium particles enriched to even higher levels at Iran’s Natanz facility. Those samples were the result of outside contamination, according to the agency.
Still, Iran’s use of better processes to amass larger quantities of both low- and medium-enriched uranium is troubling, according to Albright, who is founder of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. Iran now has 146 kilograms of 20 percent uranium, sufficient to produce many years of fuel for its medical-research reactor, he said.
“Ultimately, that will give them a greater capability to break out quickly and produce weapons-grade uranium if they decided to do so,” Albright said in an interview today. He estimates that by early next year, Iran may have enough 20 percent uranium to convert into weapons-grade uranium for one bomb.
Albright said the differences that remain to be resolved before implementing an agreement between Iran and the IAEA’s Amano over greater access to sites in Iran are “not small,” and he’s not optimistic that expanded inspections will start soon.
Even if the IAEA is granted wider inspections under the agreement it intends to sign with Iran, clearing the country’s program will take years, according to the officials. The top priority continues to be winning access to Iran’s Parchin military complex, where satellite photos have shown images of possible attempts to sanitize a suspected facility, they said.
“Actions speak louder than the words, and you have to worry that this country is intent on getting nuclear weapons despite what the Supreme Leader may say,” Albright said, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s religious edict that nuclear weapons are against Islam.
In its report, the IAEA said while the agency continued to verify over the last three months that Iran hadn’t diverted its declared nuclear material for use in weapons, it was “unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”
The agency said it couldn’t therefore definitively “conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
The report will be released formally on June 4 when the IAEA’s 35-member board of governors convenes in Vienna.
The IAEA found Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to less than 5 percent grew to 6,232 kilograms from 5,451 kilograms reported in February.
The number of centrifuges, fast-spinning machines that purify the heavy metal, installed at Iran’s fuel-fabrication plant in Natanz, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of Tehran, rose to 9,330 compared with 9,156 in February.
Machines at the Fordo facility, which was built clandestinely into the side of a mountain, rose to more than 500 from 300 in the previous report. That enrichment facility has drawn particular attention from Israel because it would be difficult to destroy with an airstrike.
Iran has already used one third of its 20 percent stockpile to make fuel plates for its Tehran research reactor, which is used to produce medical isotopes for cancer treatment. Turning the uranium into metal renders it more difficult to enrich it into weapons material, according to the officials.
About 630 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, if further purified, could yield the 15 to 22 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium an expert needs to produce a bomb, according to the London-based Verification Research, Training and Information Center, a non-governmental observer to the IAEA that’s funded by European governments.
Iran and six world powers agreed yesterday to hold a new round of talks about the Persian Gulf nation’s nuclear program next month in Moscow, after failing to bridge differences during two days of negotiations in Baghdad. It will mark the third attempt in three months to answer international worries that Iran’s atomic energy program may be a cover for secret weapons work, and to address Iran’s concerns about sanctions and diplomatic isolation.