Iran injects uranium gas into Fordo centrifuges, in worst breach of nuke deal

IAEA inspectors on hand for latest pullback from JCPOA, as Fordo is converted from research center back into active nuclear facility with enrichment capabilities

A technician at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, February 3, 2007. (AP/Vahid Salemi/File)
A technician at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, February 3, 2007. (AP/Vahid Salemi/File)

Iran began inserting uranium gas into centrifuges at the Fordo nuclear facility Thursday, marking its latest step away from the nuclear deal.

The gas injection began after midnight at Fordo, a facility built under a mountain north of the Shiite holy city of Qom, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said. It said inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were on hand.

As part of the 2015 accord with world powers limiting its nuclear program, Iran was barred from enriching uranium at Fordo, which was converted to a research center.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who announced the move Tuesday, confirmed on Twitter that enrichment activity was restarting at Fordo, converting the facility back into an active enrichment center.

A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas.

Since the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal last year and imposed tough sanctions, Iran has taken a number of steps to curb its adherence to the international agreement in a bid to receive economic relief from the European signatories to the pact.

“Iran has taken its fourth step to decrease its nuclear commitments to the deal in reaction to the increased US pressure and inactivity of European parties to the deal to save it,” Iran’s state TV said.

A satellite image from September 15, 2017, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)

Reacting to Iran’s announcement Tuesday it would resume work at Fordo, the US accused Tehran of “nuclear extortion,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his vow to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons.

European Union spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic described the bloc as “concerned” by Iran’s decision. US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus decried the move, saying Iran originally built Fordo as a “fortified, underground bunker in which to conduct secret uranium enrichment work.”

“Iran has no credible reason to expand its uranium enrichment program, at the Fordo facility or elsewhere, other than a clear attempt at nuclear extortion that will only deepen its political and economic isolation,” Ortagus said.

Fordo sits some 25 kilometers (15 miles) northeast of Qom, a Shiite holy city and the site of a former ammunition dump. Shielded by the mountains, the facility also is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead US officials to suspect it had a military purpose.

Iran state TV airs images of Russian-made S-300 long-range missiles arriving at the Fordo nuclear site in central Iran, August 28, 2016. (Screenshot/Press TV)

Iran acknowledged Fordo’s existence in 2009 amid a major pressure campaign by Western powers over Tehran’s nuclear program. The West feared Iran could use its program to build a nuclear weapon; Iran insists the program is for peaceful purposes.

The centrifuges at Fordo are first-generation IR-1s. The nuclear deal allows those at Fordo to spin without uranium gas, while allowing up to 5,060 IR-1s at the Natanz facility to enrich uranium.

Rouhani’s announcement came after Ali Akhbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Monday that Tehran had doubled the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges operating in the country to 60.

An IR-6 centrifuge can produce enriched uranium 10 times faster than an IR-1, Iranian officials say.

In this January 13, 2015, file photo released by the Iranian President’s Office, President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno)

As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. At the 4.5% level, it is enough to help power Iran’s Bushehr reactor, the country’s only nuclear power plant. Prior to the atomic deal, Iran only reached up to 20%.

Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilograms (11 pounds), Salehi said. Iran now holds over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, Salehi said. The deal had limited Iran to 300 kilograms (661 pounds).

Experts described Iran’s announcement Tuesday as a major tear to the unraveling nuclear deal.

“They’re getting closer and closer to muscle. They aren’t cutting fat right now,” said Richard Nephew, a scholar at Columbia University who worked on the deal while at the State Department.

Rouhani on Tuesday did not say whether the centrifuges would produce enriched uranium. He stressed the steps taken so far, including going beyond the deal’s enrichment and stockpile limitations, could be reversed if Europe offers a way for it to avoid US sanctions choking off its crude oil sales abroad. However, a European trade mechanism has yet to take hold and a French-proposed $15 billion line of credit has not emerged.

“We should be able to sell our oil,” Rouhani said. “We should be able to bring our money” into the country.

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