The UN nuclear watchdog is in discussions with Iran on the origin of uranium particles enriched to up to 83.7%, a report by agency confirmed on Tuesday.
The report seen by Reuters is the first official indication by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that indeed Iran’s high level of enrichment, very close to weapons grade is true.
"Iran informed the Agency that 'unintended fluctuations in enrichment levels may have occurred during transition period at the time of commissioning the process of [60%] product (November 2022) or while replacing the feed cylinder'. Discussions between the Agency and Iran to clarify the matter are ongoing," the confidential International Atomic Energy Agency report said.
Bloomberg reported on February 19 that IAEA inspectors had come across uranium particles enriched to 84 percent, but the agency had not confirmed or denied the report since then.
Bloomberg said that the IAEA needed to determine whether the higher-grade enrichment was intentional or the result of unintended technical processes. Earlier in February, inspectors had found an unusual set-up in interconnections of enrichment machines, called centrifuges.
The spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran immediately rejected Bloomberg's report as "distortion of facts" and said, "We have not enriched uranium to purity levels above 60 percent so far." He added that the IAEA has informed Tehran that "the presence of uranium particles with above 60-percent purity is common in sampling."
However, this week Iranian officials began to argue that such unintended higher-level enrichment sometimes happens in the fast-spinning centrifuge machines.
Iran’s Nuclear Agency Spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said on Friday [Feb 24] that finding highly-enriched uranium particles in the pipes connecting centrifuges was a “normal issue.”
“For example, we are producing 5 percent enriched [uranium], 11 percent particle is seen in it, or we are producing 20 percent [enriched uranium], 47 percent particle is seen in it. We had several correspondences about this in the past… it’s a natural thing in enrichment,” he noted.
“The machine is spinning fast. If the amount of the feed decreases for a moment, the enrichment will increase by a few percent; but it doesn’t matter because the end product is what matters.”
Iranian officials also said that they expect IAEA inspectors and possible its director Rafael Grossi to travel to Tehran, but did not specify that any visit would be related to the highly enriched particles.
In the past two years, the Islamic Republic has reduced IAEA’s monitoring access to its nuclear installations and has violated limits set by the 2015 nuclear accord (JCPOA) with world powers that kept enrichment at 3.67 percent. Tehran began violating the limit in 2019, when the US imposed full oil export sanctions after withdrawing from the JCPOA.
Nearly two years of diplomatic attempts to restore the deal have failed, with the West also becoming critical of Iran’s bloody crackdown on popular protests and its supply of military drones to Russia.
Any of the three European signatories of the JCPOA, the United Kingdom, France or Germany could trigger a UN Security Council mechanism enshrined in the agreement, to reinstate international sanctions on Iran for its enrichment violations.
The IAEA Board of Governors will have its next meeting on March 6 and a report on Iran will be discussed. If the new violation is presented at the meeting, Western countries may decide to take the issue to the Security Council.