Iran planning massive expansion of uranium capacity – UN nuclear watchdog

Iran has begun producing enriched uranium at a second site, to a level one step away from weapons grade

The UN nuclear watchdog has confirmed Iran is enriching uranium to 60% at a second plant, amid the breakdown of the nuclear deal with major powers.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Tuesday that Iran was also planning a massive expansion of its enrichment capacity.

Iran said earlier on Tuesday that it had started to enrich uranium to 60% at the Fordo site, having already done so at its above-ground pilot plant at Natanz for more than a year.

The increased enrichment was seen as a significant addition to its nuclear programme. Enrichment to 60% purity is one short technical step away from weapons grade, 90%. Nonproliferation experts have warned in recent months that Iran has enough 60% enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.

Iran has always denied any ambition to develop a nuclear bomb, insisting its nuclear activities are for civilian purposes.

Satellite image of Iran’s Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant
Satellite images show Iran’s Fordo plant where it has begun producing uranium enriched to 60 percent. Photograph: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Tech/AFP/Getty Images

The move was part of Iran’s response to the UN nuclear watchdog’s adoption last week of a censure motion drafted by western governments accusing it of non-cooperation.

It also comes as talks have stalled to revive a 2015 landmark deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

The deal started to unravel in 2018 when the US withdrew and reimposed sanctions. In response, Iran started to step up its nuclear programme.

A joint statement from Germany, France and Britain – the three western European countries that remain in the Iran nuclear deal – condemned Iran’s latest action to further expand its nuclear programme.

“Iran’s step is a challenge to the global non-proliferation system,” the statement on Tuesday said. “This step, which carries significant proliferation-related risks, has no credible civilian justification.”

This month, the IAEA has said it believes Iran has further increased its stockpile of highly enriched uranium. As recently as last week, the agency criticised Tehran for continuing to bar its officials from accessing or monitoring Iranian nuclear sites.

A separate report said the IAEA director general, Rafael Grossi, was “seriously concerned” that Iran had still not engaged with the agency’s inquiry into manmade uranium particles found at three undeclared sites. The issue has become a key sticking point in the talks for a renewed nuclear deal.

It has been nearly two years since IAEA officials have had full access to monitor Iran’s nuclear sites, and five months since IAEA surveillance equipment was removed.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

Guardian staff and agencies

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