Iran says it will break nuclear deal’s uranium stockpile limit in 10 days

A year after US withdrawal from pact, Tehran spokesman boasts it could enrich to 20% mark, a short step away from weapons-grade material

Illustrative: Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities near the central city of Arak. (CC-BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia/Nanking2012)
Illustrative: Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities near the central city of Arak. (CC-BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia/Nanking2012)

Iran will break the uranium stockpile limit set by its nuclear deal with world powers in the next 10 days, the spokesman for the country’s atomic agency said Monday, while also warning that Iran has the need for uranium enriched up to 20 percent, just a step away from weapons-grade levels.

The announcement indicated Iran’s determination to break from the 2015 accord, which has steadily unraveled since the Trump administration pulled America out of the deal last year and reimposed tough economic sanctions on Iran, sending its economy into freefall.

The spokesman for Iran’s nuclear agency, Behrouz Kamalvandi, made the announcement during a press conference with local journalists at Iran’s Arak heavy water facility that was carried live on Iranian state television.

“Today the countdown to pass the 300 kilograms reserve of enriched uranium has started and in 10 days time we will pass this limit,” he said, putting the date for the breach of a key provision of the agreement at June 27.

The development comes in the wake of suspected attacks on oil tankers last week in the region, attacks that the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia have blamed on Iran and which Iran has suggested were carried out by the US. It also follows four other oil tanker attacks off Fujairah in recent weeks. Iranian-allied rebels from Yemen have also struck US ally Saudi Arabia with drones and missiles.

File photo showing the interior of the Arak heavy water production facility in Arak, Iran, October 27, 2004. (AP/Fars News Agancy, File)

Kamalvandi acknowledged that the country has already quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium and said Tehran would increase uranium enrichment levels “based on the country’s needs.”

That increase could be to any level, from 3.67%, which is the current limit set by the nuclear deal.

Iran needs 5% enrichment for its nuclear power plant in the southern port of Bushehr and needs 20% enrichment for a Tehran research reactor, the spokesman said.

When uranium is mined, it typically has about 140 atoms of the unwanted U-238 isotope for every atom of U-235. Refining it to a purity of 3.67%, the level now allowed by the nuclear deal, means removing 114 unwanted atoms of U-238 for every atom of U-235.

Boosting its purity to 20% means removing 22 more unwanted isotopes per atom of U-235, while going from there to 90% purity means removing just four more per atom of U-235, Kamalvandi noted. Ninety percent is considered weapons-grade material.

US President Donald Trump, left, on July 22, 2018, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on February 6, 2018. (AP Photo)

That means going from 20% to 90% is a relatively quick process, something that worries nuclear nonproliferation experts.

Kamalvandi’s comments come a day after Iran’s regime-linked Tasnim news agency said officials were preparing to announce “preparatory steps that have been taken to further decrease Tehran’s commitments under the deal,” according to a translation by Reuters.

The country’s nuclear agency would also announce “very important information” regarding the “limitless increase of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile,” the Mehr news agency said in a Sunday report.

The move is part of Iran’s recent 60-day ultimatum to the European Union for renegotiating the pact after the US withdrawal.

Iran’s uranium conversion facility near Isfahan, which reprocesses uranium ore concentrate into uranium hexafluoride gas, which is then taken to Natanz and fed into the centrifuges for enrichment, March 30, 2005. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Last month, Iran formally dropped the limitations on uranium enrichment and the production of heavy water that were laid down in the nuclear deal, citing its ultimatum to the EU, which it accuses of failing to protect Iran against the renewed US sanctions.

Under the terms of the nuclear deal, Iran can keep a stockpile of no more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of low-enriched uranium. That’s compared to the 10,000 kilograms (22,046 pounds) of higher-enriched uranium it once had. It is also capped at storing 300 tons of heavy water, which it sells to Oman for use as a coolant in nuclear reactors.

The Trump administration pulled America out of the deal in May 2018, saying it does not sufficiently rein in Iran’s nuclear program and does nothing to stop it from developing missiles or destabilizing the Middle East. The Europeans insist that the pact is an important pillar of regional and global security and was never meant to address those other issues.

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