IAEA Report: Breakout Time Shortens

In its quarterly report on September 7, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran was enriching uranium at levels significantly higher than allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal, which experts subsequently warned could allow Iran to amass sufficient fuel for a single nuclear bomb within one to two months. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), led to limits so that the so-called “breakout time” would be more than a year. The report also said that Iran was impeding international inspectors from tracking Iran’s facilities. Tehran had also failed to cooperate with the IAEA investigation into unexplained past activities, including traces of uranium at undeclared sites. 

Rafael Grossi
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi

“The IAEA is sounding an alarm to the international community,” warned David Albright, Sarah Burkhard and Andrea Stricker, experts at the Institute for Science and International Security and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. They estimated that, in a worst-case scenario, Iran’s breakout time – the time needed to enrich enough uranium for one bomb – could be as short as one month, although other steps are required to produce and deploy a viable weapon.

The Arms Control Association (ACA) also said that the report was troubling. It “paints a bleak picture of the agency’s current ability to monitor Tehran’s nuclear activities and the new Iranian government’s willingness to cooperate with the agency,” wrote Kelsey Davenport and Julia Masterson, ACA analysts. They estimated that Iran’s breakout time was about two months based on the IAEA findings.

U.S. officials have warned that Iran’s moves could make returning to mutual compliance with the deal more difficult. The world’s six major powers and Iran held six rounds of talks in Vienna from April to June on restoring the agreement. The talks stalled in the summer, during Iran’s presidential election campaign in June and the political transition as Ibrahim Raisi took office and appointed his cabinet in August.

“I’m not going to put a date on it, but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the JCPOA does not reproduce the benefits that that agreement achieved,” Secretary of State Blinken said on September 8. “As Iran continues to make advances in its nuclear program, including spinning more sophisticated centrifuges, enriching more material, learning more, there is a point at which it would be very difficult to regain all of the benefits of the JCPOA.”

Iran has long insisted that it does not seek a nuclear weapon. But if it made the political decision to produce one, the whole process could take months or even years. After enriching a requisite amount of uranium to weapons grade, 90 percent or above, Iran would need to convert the uranium into a metal. In February, 2021, Iran confirmed that it had started the conversion process. But Iran would also then need to incorporate the uranium metal into a warhead small enough to mount on a ballistic missile, which would be an engineering challenge.

Finally, Iran would need to marry the warhead to an effective delivery system. It already has ballistic missiles that could theoretically carry a nuclear warhead. Iran is the only country to develop missiles with a 2,000 km (1,200 miles) range before developing a nuclear weapon. The following is an excerpt from the Arms Control Association’s analysis on the new IAEA report.


Arms Control Association

Kelsey Davenport and Julia Masterson

Key Details from the September IAEA Report

The IAEA’s Sept. 7 quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities, like its May 31 report, contains significantly less detail than prior reports, due to Tehran’s suspension of more intrusive monitoring measures required by the nuclear deal in February 2021. As a result, inspectors no longer have the same access to sites and facilities in Iran, complicating the IAEA’s reporting. The IAEA notes in the Sept. 7 that if the gaps in its monitoring persist for too long and it cannot maintain continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear activities, it could inhibit the agency’s ability to resume verification of Iran’s JCPOA’s commitments in the future.

The IAEA does not determine Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, but the Agency’s most recent report indicates that Iran continues to violate the following restrictions on its nuclear activities that were agreed to in the JCPOA:

  • Breached the limit on enriching uranium to no more than 3.67 percent uranium-235 for 15 years. The IAEA first verified that Iran exceeded the 3.67 percent uranium-235 enrichment limit and began enriching uranium to 4.5 percent in June 2019. According to the Sept. 7 report, Iran continues to enrich and stockpile uranium up to 5, 20, and 60 percent uranium-235.
  • Breached the stockpile limit of 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) enriched to 3.67 percent (about 202 kilograms of uranium by weight) for 15 years. In May 2019, Iran stated it would no longer be bound by the JCPOA’s 300-kilogram stockpile cap and the IAEA verified that Iran breached that limit in July 2019.

According to the IAEA’s Sept. 7 report, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile equates to 2,441.3 kilograms of uranium by weight, representing a 799.7-kilogram decrease from the last reporting period. The decrease is due to Iran having used a significant portion of its uranium enriched to less than 2 percent, which would not be useful if Iran were to decide to pursue a nuclear weapon, to produce uranium enriched to 2-5 percent.

Of the 2,441.3 kilograms, 2,372.9 are gas form, 34.5 kilograms are in the form of uranium oxides, 21.1 kilograms are in fuel assemblies and rods, and 12.8 kilograms are in liquid and solid scrap.

Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile in the form of UF6 (measured by uranium weight) is comprised of

  • 503.8 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 2 percent,
  • 1,774.8 kilograms of uranium enriched from 2-5 percent,
  • 84.3 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 20 percent, and
  • 10 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 60 percent.

Iran’s stockpiles of 5 percent enriched uranium remained the same, as it was used as feed to produce uranium enriched to higher levels. Iran’s stockpiles of 20, and 60 percent enriched uranium grew by 21 and 7.5 kilograms respectively from the last reporting period.

  • Breached the prohibition on any uranium activities, including enrichment, at Fordow for 15 years. Iran began enriching uranium to 4.5 percent uranium-235 at Fordow in November 2019. Since then, the IAEA has verified that Iran continues to enrich and stockpile uranium at the Fordow facility using 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges. In January 2021, the IAEA observed the reconfiguration of the centrifuges into three sets of two interconnected cascades, which were fed with 5 percent uranium-235 and used to produce 20 percent enriched uranium. The agency’s Sept. 7 report verifies Iran continues to use the same configuration at Fordow but notes Iran’s plan to use two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges to enrich natural uranium up to 5 percent, to be fed into the three sets of two interconnected IR-1 cascades to produce 20 percent enriched uranium. The use of interconnected cascades is prohibited by the JCPOA.
  • Breached restrictions on the number of advanced centrifuges installed and the 10-year prohibition on accumulating enriched uranium from advanced machines. Last year, Iran informed the agency of its intent to install a total of 19 cascades at Natanz, comprised of six using IR-1 centrifuges, six using IR-2m centrifuges, six using IR-4 centrifuges, and one using IR-6 centrifuges, in addition to the 30 cascades of 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges already installed at Natanz and permitted by the JCPOA.

The IAEA’s Sept. 7 report notes that Iran continues to test, operate, and accumulate enriched uranium from advanced model centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility. However, the agency did not report the installation of any new, advanced centrifuges in the planned cascades at the main fuel enrichment facility over the last quarterly period.

Specifically, the IAEA found that:

At the Natanz fuel enrichment plant:

  • As of Aug. 25, Iran is enriching up to 5 percent uranium-235 using 30 cascades of IR-1 centrifuges (these 30 cascades were permitted to enrich to 3.67 percent under the deal), six cascades of IR-2m centrifuges, and two cascades of IR-4 centrifuges. The agency also observed that the installation of the remaining four IR-4 cascades, the six IR-1 cascades, and the single cascade of IR-6 centrifuges had yet to begin, as was reported in the previous quarterly report released May 31.

At the Natanz pilot fuel enrichment plant:

  • As of Aug. 28, the IAEA verified that Iran fed 5 percent enriched uranium into two cascades comprised of 153 IR-4 centrifuges and 164 IR-6 centrifuges, respectively, to produce uranium enriched up to 60 percent.
  • As of Aug. 28, the agency also verified that Iran continues to accumulate uranium enriched up to 2 percent from cascades of nine IR-4 centrifuges, five IR-5 centrifuges, four IR-6 centrifuges, 10 IR-6 centrifuges, 19 IR-6 centrifuges, three IR-6s centrifuges, and 10 IR-s centrifuges, relatively similar to the prior report.
  • As of Aug. 28, Iran fed natural uranium into cascades of 18 IR-1 centrifuges and 32 IR-2m centrifuges to produce 2 percent enriched uranium.
  • Breached the prohibition on uranium metal production for 10 years: Iran informed the IAEA of its intention to produce uranium metal in December 2020. On May 18, the agency verified that Iran produced 2.42 kilograms of natural uranium metal from 3.1 kilograms of natural uranium. From that, Iran used 0.85 kilograms to produce 0.54 kilograms of uranium in the form of uranium silicide.

The agency’s Sept. 7 report confirms that Iran’s work on the main production line at the Esfahan fuel fabrication plant is ongoing, and that, as of Aug. 29, the installation of equipment for the first stage of the three-stage process, the production of uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) from uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas, was almost complete. Iran previously informed agency inspectors that uranium metal would be produced at the second stage of the process.

Iran is continuing its uranium metal production research and development activities. According to the IAEA, the agency verified Aug. 14 that Iran used 257 grams of UF4 enriched up to 20 percent uranium-235 to produce 200 grams of uranium metal enriched to the same level.

  • Suspended monitoring and verification provisions required by the nuclear deal. Iran suspended implementation of the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement Feb. 23, 2021. While Iran and the IAEA reached a joint arrangement Feb. 21 that allowed the agency to remotely continue its necessary additional safeguards activities in Iran for three months, that agreement expired June 24, after it was extended for one month May 24. The monitoring equipment left in Iran under the temporary arrangement was due for service Aug. 24, but Iran has not allowed inspectors to access the equipment.

According to the Sept. 7 report, the IAEA wrote a letter to Tehran July 9 requesting confirmation on the status of the four surveillance cameras that were installed at a centrifuge component manufacturing workshop at Iran’s TESA Karaj complex. Tehran granted the agency access on Sept. 4. Inspectors found that of the four cameras, two remained intact while one had been severely damaged and the other destroyed. The agency noted that the data storage and the recording unit from the destroyed camera were not present in the remnants provided to inspectors.

The IAEA was able to recover the data storage components from the two intact cameras and the damaged camera but has been yet unable to read and interpret the data. According to the Sept. 7 report, “until the Agency is able to access the storage media from the other three cameras, which have been placed under Agency seal, it will not be in a position to determine whether the data from the storage media is recoverable.”

  • Conversion of the Arak Reactor: Iran has still not pursued the construction of the Arak reactor based on its original design.
  • Heavy Water Production: Iran is capped at 130 metric tons of heavy water under the JCPOA, but the IAEA has not had access to Iran’s heavy water production or its heavy water stockpile since Feb. 23, 2021. Based on satellite imagery analysis, the agency estimates that heavy water production has continued.

Click here for the full analysis.


Photo Credit: Rafael Grossi by Dean Calma / IAEA via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).