Iran is pushing ahead with plans to produce an advanced uranium fuel for a research reactor in Tehran. The government’s announcement last week, which experts said was not entirely unexpected, marks yet another breach of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and comes at a critical time in negotiations to restart the pact before the elected Iranian one Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi on August 8th.
“Iran is pursuing a strategy of brinkmanship,” says Andrea Stricker, a non-proliferation analyst at the non-profit Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They are using civilian justifications as a pretext to outrageously advance their knowledge of nuclear weapons.” Iran says the reactor will be used to make medical isotopes.
The Trump administration pulled out of the deal in 2018, which withheld the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions. President Joe Biden has vowed to re-join the pact, but Iran remains at odds with the United States and other signatories, including China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the European Union. Iran stepped up the pressure last week, announcing that it will pursue its long-term goal of producing uranium silicide fuel for the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency (AEOI )’s Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Iran would irradiate uranium silicide pellets in the reactor to produce medical isotopes, mainly molybdenum-99. Mo-99 breaks down into technetium-99m, which is widely used in diagnostic procedures for cancer and heart disease.
The TRR has a complex history. The United States supplied the reactor to Iran in 1967 as part of the Atoms for Peace program – along with highly enriched bomb-grade uranium as fuel. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, HEU shipments ceased, forcing Iran to switch the reactor to low-enriched uranium (LEU) operation. After revelations about Iran’s covert nuclear activities, Iranian officials failed to convince the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to authorize the sale of LEU fuel for the TRR in the late 2000s. In 2011, AEOI began producing LEU fuel, enriched to 20% of the fissile isotope uranium-235. Experts found that this milestone represents 90% of the process required to make bomb-grade uranium – and it sparked the crisis that led to the nuclear deal.
A year after Trump’s exit from the deal, Iran has taken several steps to resume nuclear activities banned under the deal, including experimenting with advanced centrifuges and enriching uranium to higher levels of uranium-235. In recent negotiations to revive the nuclear deal, Iran asked for assurances that it could import uranium silicide pellets – but no country producing the state-of-the-art research reactor fuel “was ready to give Iran such an unequivocal guarantee,” said Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA tweeted last week. About uranium silicide, he says: “The quality and quantity of [medical isotopes] will be significantly improved. “
The manufacture of silicide fuel for the TRR violates the 15-year moratorium of the agreement on uranium metallurgy as an intermediate step in the process involves the processing of uranium metal. It also involves a technical challenge that few other countries have mastered, Gharibabadi boasts. With a higher thermal conductivity than conventional fuel made from uranium oxide, uranium silicide is considered to be more efficient and safer. The manufacture will make Iran “one of the leading countries in the field of nuclear technology,” he says.
The US and other Western powers that negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran see it differently. “It is another unfortunate step backwards for Iran,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
The last round of negotiations in Vienna on a return to the nuclear deal concluded on June 20, and it is unclear when the next round will take place. Although negotiators have hoped to agree on terms before Raisi takes the reins, “I don’t think it’s necessarily a tough deadline,” said Naysan Rafati, a senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group. “Iran’s most important national security decisions, including key issues like the nuclear talks, affect more than the president and his immediate team,” he said. Even if the negotiations drag on for August 8th, Rafati predicts: “A return could still be in sight.”