The International Atomic Energy Agency has issued its latest report on Monday, sounding an alarm to the international community and estimating that the time required by Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon is as short as one month (Analysis of IAEA Iran Verification and Monitoring Report – September 2021).
This may be a good moment to remind President Joe Biden of his promise in late August to the visiting Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, that Iran will “never” get a nuclear weapon, and that should a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat fail, there are “other options.”
According to the IAEA, during the reporting period in question, a key date, August 24, 2021, passed without their being allowed to carry out the required maintenance of agency monitoring equipment. Memory cards and batteries must be replaced at least every three months to ensure the continued collection of data. As a result, according to IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, “The Agency’s confidence that it can maintain continuity of knowledge at remaining facilities and locations in Iran pertinent to the technical understanding, which was already declining before 24 August 2021, has significantly further declined since that date.”
That means the agency simply knows nothing about the current state of Iran’s nuclear program (Iran Denies Visiting IAEA Director Access to Its Nuclear Facilities).
According to the New York Times (Iran Nears an Atomic Milestone), Iran has not been this close to manufacturing a nuclear weapon since before President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear accord which forced the Iranians to ship out of the country more than 97% of their nuclear fuel. Now, based on the latest IAEA, a steady effort on the part of Iran to restore its nuclear capabilities has succeeded.
The report offers highlights and a worst-case breakout estimate. For an even more detailed analysis please refer to the report itself:
- Iran has produced a total of 200 grams of near 20 percent enriched uranium metal, first converting uranium hexafluoride enriched to 20 percent to uranium tetrafluoride and then producing uranium metal. Iran produced 2.42 grams of natural uranium metal during the previous reporting period. Despite its claims of civil use, Iran’s development of the wherewithal to make uranium metal as well as the metal itself is concerning because its production is a key step in making nuclear weapons.
- Iran has enough enriched uranium hexafluoride in the form of 2 to 5 percent low enriched uranium (LEU), near 20 percent enriched uranium, and 60 percent enriched uranium, to produce weapons-grade uranium (WGU) for over two nuclear weapons without using any natural uranium as feedstock, a fact that reduces breakout timelines.
- A worst-case breakout estimate, which is defined as the time required to produce enough WGU for one nuclear weapon, is as short as one month. Iran could produce a second significant quantity of WGU in less than three months after breakout commences. It could produce a third quantity in less than five months, where it would need to produce some of the WGU from natural uranium.
- As of August 30, Iran has produced an IAEA-estimated stock of 10 kilograms (kg) of near 60 percent enriched uranium (in uranium mass or U mass). Iran started to produce near 60 percent enriched uranium at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) on April 17, 2021. The Institute estimates that one “significant quantity” of 60 percent enriched uranium is 40 kg (U mass), roughly enough for one nuclear explosive. As this stock grows, Iran can also more quickly produce WGU for a nuclear explosive.
- Iran has added an additional cascade of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium to 60 percent U-235. Since August 14, Iran has been using a cascade of IR-4 centrifuges, in addition to a previously enriching cascade of IR-6 centrifuges.
- Iran is learning important lessons in producing WGU and breaking out to nuclear weapons by experimenting with skipping typical enrichment steps as it enriches up to 60 percent uranium-235. It is starting from a level below 5 percent LEU and enriching directly to near 60 percent in one cascade, rather than using two steps in between, a slower process entailing the intermediate production of 20 percent enriched uranium. Iran is also implementing a plan to allow IR-6 cascades to switch more easily from the production of five percent enriched uranium to 20 percent enriched uranium. As such, Iran is experimenting with multi-step enrichment while seeking to shortcut the process.
- The production rate of 20 percent enriched uranium at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) and PFEP remained constant from the end to the previous reporting period to this reporting period. Iran was using a larger 5 percent feedstock during this reporting period.
- Iran continued to grow its near 20 percent enriched uranium stock in the form of uranium hexafluoride, the chemical form of enriched uranium required in centrifuges. As of August 30, 2021, Iran has an IAEA-estimated stock of 84.3 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium (U mass and in the form of uranium hexafluoride), an increase from the previous reporting period’s 62.8 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium in the form of hexafluoride.
- Iran has additional stocks of 20 percent enriched uranium but they are in chemical forms other than hexafluoride. This stock comprises 34.9 kg of 20 percent uranium, 33 kg of which Iran produced recently, and 1.9 kg which were imported under JCPOA Joint Commission rules. The enriched uranium hexafluoride was sent to the Esfahan Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant (FPFP) and converted into forms for fuel assemblies, intermediate chemical products, and a small amount of liquid and solid scrap. The 20 percent enriched uranium used to make uranium metal was from this 33 kg transfer.
- Using the uranium metal, Iran made 20 percent uranium silicide fuel to manufacture a new type of fuel plate for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), but the IAEA reports the uranium silicide “was not suitable for making a fuel plate for the new TRR fuel.” Iran’s production of this type of fuel plate is unnecessary and a major violation of the JCPOA. It is likely a pretext to add to its nuclear weapons capabilities.
- After months of accumulating a large stockpile of uranium enriched to below 2 percent U-235, Iran has started to alternate feeding cascades at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) with up to 2 percent enriched uranium and with natural uranium, producing 5 percent LEU more quickly during the times it used 2 percent LEU as feedstock. This way, Iran succeeded in producing additional 20 and 60 percent uranium stocks while maintaining its large stock of up to 5 percent enriched uranium.
- Overall, Iran is improving its ability to recycle tails from multiple enrichment steps ultimately down to the level of slightly enriched uranium, very close to the enrichment level of natural uranium.
- The previous reporting period had indicated a reduced quantity of enriching centrifuges at the FEP following an April 11 sabotage event involving an explosion, but the number of enriching IR-1 cascades and IR-2m cascades appears to have almost fully recovered. Iran now has 30 cascades of IR-1 centrifuges, six cascades of IR-2m centrifuges, and two cascades of IR-4 centrifuges at the FEP. Of those, 29 IR-1 cascades, five IR-2m cascades, and two IR-4 cascades “were being fed” with uranium, as of August 25, 2021.
- Iran’s current enrichment capability is estimated to be about 11,700 separative work units (SWU) per year, compared to 9,300 SWU per year at the end of the last reporting period.
- Iran’s total usable stock of below 5 percent LEU remained the same compared to the previous reporting period. The reasons why this stock did not increase include its use as feed into cascades to produce 20 and 60 percent enriched uranium.
- The near 5 percent LEU production during this reporting period, which spanned 96 days at the Natanz FEP, equaled 504.9 kg U mass, or a daily average rate of 5.26 kg (U mass), significantly higher than the previous daily production rate of 2.4 kg U mass, reflecting Iran starting with two percent enriched uranium and additional capacity at Natanz.
- The IAEA report does not discuss Iran’s construction of a new advanced centrifuge assembly facility in a tunnel near the main Natanz complex.
- As noted in a separate IAEA report,6 and independent of problems caused by Iran’s suspension of the AP and JCPOA monitoring, Iran has failed to cooperate with the IAEA regarding the agency’s finding of uranium particles at three undeclared sites and answer questions about a fourth site, leading Director-General Grossi to state, “The lack of progress in clarifying the Agency’s questions concerning the correctness and completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations seriously affects the ability of the Agency to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.”
- From the TESA (or TABA) Karaj centrifuge manufacturing facility, the site of a sabotage event in June, Iran provided the IAEA with one destroyed video camera, one severely damaged camera, and two intact cameras, which it had moved to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. The IAEA recovered data from three of the cameras and placed them under the IAEA seal without further examination. However, “the data storage medium and the recording unit from the destroyed camera were not present among the remnants of that camera.” The IAEA asked Iran to locate the storage medium and recording unit and explain their absence. Under the terms of the September 12 agreement, Director-General Grossi stated that Iran will permit the re-installation of cameras at the TESA/TABA centrifuge manufacturing facility.7 Any gaps in coverage, while the cameras were not present at the facility, were not discussed or revealed.
- Given the lengthy period since the IAEA had access to surveillance data, it is likely that serious gaps have developed in that data, particularly concerning centrifuge manufacturing and assembly.
- Even with a new commitment by Iran to permit the IAEA to service its equipment, the verification process may now face serious gaps, possibly irreversibly breaking the IAEA’s continuity of knowledge of Iran’s nuclear activities, which is so vital to verification.