For the first time since the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran began enriching uranium at 20% at its Fordow facility in January 2021. According to the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), the country is able to produce 17-20 g of 20% enriched uranium every hour and work continues on the production of uranium metal at the Isfahan facility. Have we reached ‘breakout time’?
In the first year of the Biden administration, Iran’s latest technological advancements in its nuclear programme continue to be of growing concern. Set against a backdrop of a changing Middle East marked by the Abraham agreements, eventual peace talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia, destruction of Syria and the protracted Yemen civil war – in 2020 Iran breached the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA – the ‘nuclear deal’) several times and continued to block IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspector access to its facilities connected to undeclared nuclear activities.
2020: year of breaches
During summer 2020, Iran’s stock of heavy water (deuterium oxide) reached 132.6 metric tons and they stockpiled 1,571.6 kg of enriched uranium – most of it UF6 and of which 873 kg was enriched to 4.5 %, based on IAEA data.
On 2 July, an explosion occurred at the Natanz enrichment facility and damaged 75% of the primary centrifuge assembly hall. To replace the destroyed centrifuge, in autumn 2020 the AEOI announced the construction of a new centrifuge production complex.
They installed a cascade of 174 advanced IR-2m centrifuges and filled it with uranium hexafluoride and begun installing a cascade of IR-4 centrifuges. This was a further breach of the JCPOA, which imposes upon Iran permission to enrich uranium with only IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz.
During last autumn Iran stockpiled 2,443 kg of enriched uranium-235, some 1,535.1 kg of which has been enriched to 4.5%. Satellite imagery revealed construction at the underground Fordow enrichment facility.
In December 2020, Iran approved legislation mandating the AEOI to:
increase the monthly output of enriched uranium by 500 kg
begin enriching uranium to the level of 20%
produce and store 120 kg of 20% enriched uranium every year
bring back to operation the Arak heavy water reactor
deploy at least 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges and 164 IR-6 centrifuges within three months
establish a metallic uranium factory in Isfahan within five months, and
increase the number of IR-6 centrifuges in use to 1,000 within one year.
2021: turning point
The start of 2021 was punctuated by new announcements from the Iranian regime and the IAEA. Iran announced:
the enrichment of uranium at 20%
the installation of two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP)
348 IR-2m centrifuges at the FEP
production of 3.6 g of uranium metal at the Isfahan facility
beginning installation of the 1000 new IR-2m centrifuges, and
design of a new IR2M heavy water reactor similar to the Arak reactor’s original design.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed in a statement that they might enrich up to 60% uranium-235 if needed. In February, the Iranian regime decided that they would not longer grand daily access to UN inspectors and would no longer provide security footage of ongoing activity.
The IAEA found traces of radioactive material in samples taken from two locations in August and September 2020. It also reported that Iran attempted to design an improved type of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, and released a report detailing Iran’s installation of a cascade of 174 IR-2m centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility.
Furthermore, Iran is in the process of installing one IR-4 cascade and one IR-6 cascade. In February an IAEA report confirmed that Iran had accumulated 17.6 kg of uranium enriched up to 20% uranium-235.
The 2015 nuclear deal, economical sanctions, cyber attacks, an explosion in Natanz, and assassinations – including the killing of one the most prominent Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi, in November 2020 – and Covid-19 may have delayed Iranian plans, but did not deter them from enriching uranium.
According to Israel’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz, it could take Iran six months to produce enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon and from one to two years for nuclear weaponry. For David Albright, former weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, it could take Iran nine months to test a device, a year to get a nuclear weapon and two years to reach ballistic missile capabilities. The new US secretary of state Antony Blinken declared that the breakout time has gone from beyond a year to about three or four months.
Samantha Rubinsztejn is a Sales Development Manager in cybersecurity. She holds a M.A. in Nonproliferation and International Security from King’s College London and a B.A. in Counter-Terrorism & Homeland Security from the Interdisciplinary Centre of Herzliya, Israel.
The fire and explosions at the Natanz site were claimed by some Iranian officials to be the result of cyber sabotage.
©IISS via BBC