Analysis of IAEA Iran Verification and Monitoring Report - March 2022

by David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, and Andrea Stricker [1]

March 4, 2022

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This report summarizes and assesses information in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) quarterly safeguards report for March 3, 2022, Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015), including Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The IAEA’s latest report details Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear activities and inspectors’ diminished ability to detect Iranian diversion of assets to undeclared facilities.

Highlights and Breakout Estimate

  • Due to the growth of Iran’s 20 and 60 percent enriched uranium stocks, breakout timelines have become dangerously short, far shorter than just a few months ago. Iran now has enough 20 and 60 percent enriched uranium (in the form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6)) to use as feed for production of enough weapon-grade uranium (WGU) (taken as 25 kilograms (kg) per weapon) for two nuclear weapons, producing the first quantity of WGU in as little as two to three weeks after breakout commences, including a set up period, and producing the second quantity by the end of that month.
  • In total, Iran has enough 60, 20, and 4.5 percent enriched uranium to make sufficient WGU for four nuclear weapons. The third quantity could be produced soon after the start of the second month after breakout commences, and the fourth in somewhat less than four months. The third and fourth quantities would depend on stocks of uranium enriched between 2 and 4.5 percent and would be produced significantly more slowly than the first two quantities of WGU.
  • In essence, Iran is effectively breaking out slowly by producing 60 percent enriched uranium and continuing to accumulate it. As of February 19, Iran had a stock of 33.2 kg of near 60 percent enriched uranium (in uranium mass or U mass), or 49.1 kg (in hexafluoride mass). If Iran accumulated about 40 kg of 60 percent enriched uranium (U mass), it would have enough to be able to further enrich it and quickly produce 25 kg of WGU (U mass) in just a few advanced centrifuge cascades.
  • Alternatively, 40 kg of 60 percent enriched uranium is more than enough to fashion a nuclear explosive directly, without any further enrichment, although Iran’s known nuclear weapons designs use WGU.
  • Iran’s current production rate of 60 percent enriched uranium is 4.5 kg per month (U mass), meaning that it could accumulate its first amount of 40 kg in less than two months from now.
  • Iran is learning important lessons in producing WGU and breaking out to nuclear weapons, including by experimenting with skipping typical enrichment steps as it enriches up to 60 percent uranium-235 and building and testing out equipment to feed 20 percent enriched uranium and withdraw highly enriched uranium (HEU). It is starting from a level below 5 percent LEU and enriching directly to near 60 percent in one cascade, rather than using two steps in between, a slower process entailing the intermediate production of 20 percent enriched uranium. It has used temporary feed and withdrawal set ups to produce HEU from near 20 percent enriched uranium feed. Iran is also implementing a plan to allow IR-6 cascades to switch more easily from the production of 5 percent enriched uranium to 20 percent enriched uranium. As such, Iran is experimenting with multi-step enrichment while seeking to shortcut the process.
  • Iran started to produce 20 percent enriched uranium in one cascade of IR-6 centrifuges at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) in addition to the six IR-1 cascades that were already producing 20 percent enriched uranium.
  • The production rate of 20 percent enriched uranium at the FFEP increased by 50 percent from a monthly average of 13.2 kg (U mass) or 19.5 kg (hex mass), to 19.7 kg (U mass) or 29.2 kg (hex mass).
  • Iran has installed a second cascade of 166 IR-6 centrifuges at the FFEP, but has not yet fed it with UF6. The installation of advanced centrifuges at the FFEP enhances Iran’s ability to break out using a declared but highly fortified facility.
  • As of February 19, Iran had an IAEA-estimated stock of 182.1 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium (U mass and in the form of UF6), an increase from the previous reporting period’s 113.8 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium in UF6 form. Iran also has an additional stock of 36.5 kg (U mass) of 20 percent uranium in other chemical forms.
  • Since the previous report, Iran has not produced any uranium metal.
  • At the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP), Iran has installed 36 cascades of IR-1 centrifuges, six cascades of IR-2m centrifuges, and two cascades of IR-4 centrifuges. Of those, 31 IR-1 cascades, six IR-2m cascades, and two IR-4 cascades were being fed with uranium.
  • Iran’s current, total operating enrichment capability is estimated to be about 13,400 separative work units (SWU) per year, compared to 12,400 SWU per year at the end of the last reporting period.
  • While average daily production of 5 percent LEU increased at the FEP, Iran’s total usable stock of below 5 percent LEU decreased compared to the previous reporting period, as the average feed rate at the FFEP increased.
  • Near 5 percent LEU production during this reporting period, which spanned 104 days at the Natanz FEP, totaled 596 kg (U mass), for a daily average production rate of 5.7 kg (U mass), a slight increase from the previous reporting period’s daily average production rate of 4.9 kg (U mass). This reflects Iran’s slightly increased enrichment capacity at the FEP.
  • Iran’s overall reported stockpile of LEU increased due to a significant increase in Iran’s stock of up to 2 percent enriched uranium, much of which was produced as tails in the production of 20 percent and 60 percent enriched uranium.
  • On January 24, the IAEA visited Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing workshop at a new location in Esfahan, relocated from the Karaj site, and installed surveillance cameras to replace those at the Karaj site. The IAEA will not have access to Esfahan or Karaj video recordings and data, which Iran claims it will keep in its custody, until it receives relief from sanctions. The IAEA, for more than one year, has not been able to monitor Iran’s production of advanced centrifuges, particularly rotors and bellows, per JCPOA monitoring provisions, and faces a difficult challenge in reconstructing events should Iran turn over these data.
  • The IAEA also faces a gap in knowledge about Iran’s advanced centrifuge manufacturing activities from June 2021 until January 2022, raising doubt about its ability to ascertain whether Iran may have diverted centrifuge components.
  • The IAEA report does not discuss the status of Iran’s construction of a new advanced centrifuge assembly facility in a tunnel near the main Natanz complex.
  • The IAEA does not report whether Iran has turned over a missing recording unit and storage data from a camera that was destroyed at Karaj in June 2021.
  • Combined with outstanding safeguards issues in Iran, the IAEA has a significantly reduced ability to monitor Iran’s complex and growing nuclear program, which notably has unresolved nuclear weapons dimensions. The IAEA’s ability to detect diversion of nuclear materials, equipment, and other capabilities to undeclared facilities remains greatly diminished.

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[1] Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

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