Iran announced that it is producing large amounts of yellowcake, a precursor to enriched uranium, and has shipped two batches of the material to a uranium conversion facility.
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said the Islamic Republic was ready to increase its production of yellowcake to 300 tons per year over the next five to six years, and had shipped 30 tons on yellowcake from the Shahid Rezaeinzhad Industrial Complex in the central province of Yazd to a conversion facility in Isfahan province, according to Iranian media reports on Wednesday.
Salehi delivered the message to Iran’s Channel 2 news from the production complex.
“Today, we are witnessing the completion of an important link: uranium production,” Salehi said, according to a translation by the Washington-based non-profit Middle East Media Research Institute. “This is our first plant of a large scale, and we are using the latest technologies.”
Salehi said that the new facility was at full capacity, that Iran was extracting uranium from a mine in Yazd province and other still-unidentified mines, and had discovered large amounts of the material in the country through aerial surveys.
He said they were planning on building additional plants similar to the Shahid Rezaeinzhad Industrial Complex in the same province.
Yellowcake is a uranium concentrate in powder form and an early step in uranium processing. It is produced by mining uranium ore from rocks and separating the uranium from the rocks by bathing them in acid. The yellowcake can then be converted, enriched to raise its purity, and then used for weapons or energy production.
Last month, Salehi said that Iran had deceived nuclear inspectors by quietly purchasing replacement parts for its Arak nuclear reactor while it was conducting negotiations for an international agreement under which it knew it would be required to destroy the original components.
Salehi recalled that during talks for the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 deal that lifted sanctions on Iran in return for it dismantling the weapons-capable parts of its nuclear program, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned his country’s negotiators that he expected Western parties to renege on the agreement.
“When our team was in the midst of the negotiations, we knew that [the Westerners] would ultimately renege on their promises,” Salehi said. “The leader [Khamenei] warned us that they were violators of agreements. We had to act wisely. Not only did we avoid destroying the bridges that we had built, but we also built new bridges that would enable us to go back faster if needed.”
Salehi insisted that such subterfuge did not indicate that Iran was or is seeking nuclear weapons, as the Trump administration and Israel insist. Iran’s plan was to modernize the Arak reactor, which was based on an old Russian design, and use the new facility to produce reduced quantities of plutonium that would be used for nuclear fuel, but not weapons, he said.
US President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal in May last year but the other signatories, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran have all agreed to try to keep the pact alive on their own. Trump insists the original agreement did not go far enough in curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and wants to renegotiate the JCPOA with stricter terms. In the meantime Washington has imposed heavy sanctions on Iran that could weaken the ability of the remaining parties to maintain the deal.
Last week Salehi said Iran has begun “preliminary activities for designing” a modern process for 20-percent uranium enrichment. Restarting enrichment at that level would mean Iran had withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal.
Tehran has in the past warned that if the remaining parties are not able to keep up the trade and financial benefits the deal provided, it will also pull out and restart controversial parts of its nuclear program.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.