Iran racing to expand enrichment at underground plant, IAEA report shows

Those seven cascades, one of IR-4 centrifuges and six of IR-2m machines, were fully installed but not yet enriching, Monday's report said.

 THE NATANZ uranium enrichment facility, south of Tehran, 2005: According to foreign reports, Israel’s effort has yielded a decade of operational successes, including the sabotage of the Natanz facility last year. (photo credit: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS)
THE NATANZ uranium enrichment facility, south of Tehran, 2005: According to foreign reports, Israel’s effort has yielded a decade of operational successes, including the sabotage of the Natanz facility last year.
(photo credit: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS)

Iran is rapidly expanding its ability to enrich uranium with advanced centrifuges at its underground plant at Natanz and now intends to go further than previously planned, a confidential UN nuclear watchdog report seen by Reuters showed on Monday.

While indirect talks between Iran and the United States on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have stalled, Tehran has brought onstream an ever larger number of advanced centrifuges the deal bans it from using to produce enriched uranium.

These machines are far more efficient than the first-generation IR-1, the only centrifuge that the deal lets Iran use to grow its stock of enriched uranium. Iran has been adding them, particularly at two underground sites at Natanz and Fordow that may be designed to withstand potential aerial bombardment.

At the underground Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz, Monday's ad hoc report to member states showed Iran has quickly completed the installation of seven cascades, or clusters, of advanced centrifuges that were either not finished or at a very early stage of installation according to the last quarterly International Atomic Energy Agency report issued on September 7.

Those seven cascades, one of IR-4 centrifuges and six of IR-2m machines, were fully installed but not yet enriching, Monday's report said.

A handout satellite image shows a general view of the Natanz nuclear facility after a fire, in Natanz, Iran July 8, 2020 (credit: MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)A handout satellite image shows a general view of the Natanz nuclear facility after a fire, in Natanz, Iran July 8, 2020 (credit: MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Informing the IAEA

Iran has also informed the IAEA it plans to add an extra three cascades of IR-2m machines at the FEP, on top of the 12 already announced and now installed, the report showed.

Of those three extra IR-2m cascades, installation has already started on two of them, the report said.

Iran recently installed three cascades of advanced IR-6 centrifuges at the underground Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz that came onstream soon afterwards. Diplomats say the IR-6 is Iran's most advanced centrifuge.

The last inspection mentioned in the quarterly report was September 6, when the IAEA verified that the third IR-6 cascade was enriching. Monday's report said all three were still enriching.

The report showed all the centrifuges enriching at Natanz were still producing uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas enriched to up to 5% but now they were being fed with natural UF6. That contrasted to the quarterly report that said they were being fed with UF6 enriched to up to 2%. It did not explain the change.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran deal and re-imposed sanctions against Iran that the deal had lifted. Iran responded by breaching the restrictions on its nuclear activities imposed by the deal.

If the deal is revived Iran will have to put its advanced centrifuges into storage, diplomats say.