The United Nations atomic agency confirmed Tuesday that its inspectors had found traces of near weapons-grade nuclear material at Iran’s underground Fordow facility, but said Iran was still enriching to the less dangerous level of 60% at the site.
Iran has been producing 60% enriched uranium for almost two years. But the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had found traces of near weapons-grade 84% during a Jan. 22 inspection, according to a confidential report sent to member states and viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The 60% material, which no other non-nuclear weapons state is producing, can be quickly turned into weapons-grade material, which is considered to be around 90% enriched.
The IAEA said Iran claimed in a letter that what the agency found at Fordow was the result of “unintended fluctuations in enrichment levels.”
If Iran deliberately starts producing weapons-grade material, it could lead to crisis over the country’s nuclear activities. European diplomats have said that would be the trigger for them to move to formally kill a 2015 nuclear agreement, which lifted most international sanctions on Tehran in exchange for strict but temporary limits on Iran’s nuclear work. Western officials also say it could prod Israel to pursue a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli officials haven’t been public about their plans.
Iran has greatly expanded its nuclear work since 2019, a year after the Trump administration took the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear accord. President Biden’s efforts to revive the pact so far have failed.
Under the 2015 agreement, Iran was only supposed to enrich uranium up to 3.67% for 15 years.
The particles of near weapons-grade material were found the day after inspectors discovered that Iran had connected cascades of centrifuges, machines which enrich uranium, without reporting this to the agency. The IAEA reported this undeclared work as a breach of Iran’s commitment to its member states on Feb. 1.
Diplomats involved in the oversight of Iran’s nuclear activities say Tehran might also have experimented with pathways to producing weapons-grade material at the same time as they changed the configuration of the cascades.
A person close to the IAEA said it wasn’t clear if Iran’s production of near weapons-grade material was an accident or deliberate but noted the increase in the level of enrichment was a big jump. The person said the amount of 84% material produced was likely very small.
The IAEA didn’t issue a separate report on the production of near weapons-grade material, saying it first needed to discuss the issue with Iran. That has raised concerns among some member states who are eager to ensure any Iranian decision to accumulate weapons-grade material would be immediately known.
The agency said in the report that it had in recent weeks increased the frequency of its visits to Fordow.
When the 84% enrichment was earlier reported last weekend by Bloomberg, senior diplomats from the European countries said that, if confirmed, it would be an “unprecedented and extremely grave development.”