Iran Using Adaptable Machines to Accelerate Enrichment, UN Nuclear Monitor Reports

As nuclear negotiations falter, Iran turns to an advanced device for enrichment which makes acquiring weapons-grade uranium much quicker and easier, prompting concerns from diplomats

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The atomic enrichment facilities Natanz nuclear research center, Iran, in 2019.
The atomic enrichment facilities Natanz nuclear research center, Iran, in 2019.Credit: HO / Atomic Energy Organization of Iran / AFP

Iran has escalated its uranium enrichment further by enriching with advanced machines at its underground Fordow plant that are able to switch more easily between enrichment levels, the UN atomic watchdog said in a report on Saturday seen by Reuters.

Western diplomats have long expressed concern about devices this cascade, or cluster, of centrifuges is equipped with.

The use of these so-called modified sub-headers means Iran could switch more quickly and easily to enriching to higher purity levels.

While Iran is required to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency about such a switch, if it chose not to, it might escape detection for some time as there is currently a lag between Iran's enrichment and IAEA inspectors' verification of what is produced.

"On 7 July 2022, Iran informed the Agency that, on the same day, it had begun feeding the aforementioned cascade with UF6 enriched up to 5 percent U-235," the confidential report to IAEA member states said.

UF6 refers to uranium hexafluoride gas which is fed into centrifuges to be enriched.

In a report on June 20 also seen by Reuters, the IAEA said that months after Iran informed it of its intention to use the cascade, Iran had begun feeding UF6 into it for passivation, a process that comes before enrichment.

The IAEA verified on July 6 that passivation had ended, Saturday's report said.

"On 9 July 2022, the Agency verified that Iran had begun feeding UF6 enriched up to 5 percent U-235 into the cascade of 166 IR-6 centrifuges with modified sub-headers for the declared purpose of producing UF6 enriched up to 20 percent U-235," it said.

Iran is already enriching to up to 60 percent elsewhere, well above the up to 20 percent it produced before its 2015 deal with major powers that capped its enrichment level at 3.67 percent but still below the roughly 90 percent of weapons grade.

In 2015, Iran and world powers struck a nuclear deal, which saw Tehran drastically limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord, raising tensions across the wider Middle East and sparking a series of attacks and incidents.

Talks in Vienna about reviving the deal have been on a “pause” since March. Since the deal’s collapse, Iran has been running advanced centrifuges and rapidly growing stockpiles of enriched uranium.

Last week, Iran and the U.S. held indirect negotiations over Tehran's tattered nuclear deal but were finished without making any progress, an Iranian news agency reported.

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