Is Iran close to building a nuclear bomb?


Is Iran secretly enhancing its nuclear weapons program? That’s the new fear that the world is facing as reports have emerged that the country has been enriching uranium particles to near bomb-grade levels.

The United States on Tuesday also revealed that Iran could produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb in under two weeks. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said that back in 2018 when the previous administration decided to leave the nuclear agreement, it would have taken Iran about 12 months to produce one fissile — one bomb’s worth of fissile material. Now it would take about 12 days.”

What does all this mean? Should the world be worried? We give you the answers.

What is enriched uranium?

Uranium is a naturally-occurring element that can have nuclear-related uses once it has been refined, or enriched. Uranium found in nature consists largely of two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The production of energy in nuclear reactors is from the ‘fission’ or splitting of the U-235 atoms, a process which releases energy in the form of heat. U-235 is the main fissile isotope of uranium.

Natural uranium contains 0.7 per cent of the U-235 isotope. The remaining 99.3 per cent is mostly the U-238 isotope which does not contribute directly to the fission process (though it does so indirectly by the formation of fissile isotopes of plutonium).

A sample of highly enriched uranium. Wikimedia Commons

Low-enriched uranium, which typically has a 3-5 per cent concentration of U-235, can be used to produce fuel for commercial nuclear power plants. Highly enriched uranium has a purity of 20 per cent or more and is used in research reactors. Weapons-grade uranium is 90 per cent enriched or more.

What did nuclear watchdogs find in Iran?

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear watchdog, has found uranium particles enriched to 83.7 per cent purity — very close to weapons grade — at Iran’s underground Fordow site.

The report says that in January, the IAEA took environmental samples at the Fordow plant, which showed the presence of high enriched uranium particles up to 83.7 per cent purity. The IAEA subsequently informed Iran that these findings were “inconsistent with the level of enrichment at the Fordow plant as declared by Iran and requested Iran to clarify the origins of these particles,” added the report.

The report also said Iran’s stock of uranium enriched to up to 60 per cent, which is being produced at two sites, had grown by 25.2 kg to 87.5 kg since the last quarterly report. The total stockpile of uranium enriched to that and lower levels is estimated at 3,760.8 kg, the report said.

According to IAEA terminology, around 42 kg of uranium enriched to 60 per cent purity is a “significant quantity”, defined as “the approximate amount of nuclear material for which the possibility of manufacturing a nuclear explosive device cannot be excluded”. However, in practice it takes more than 55 kg of uranium enriched to 60 per cent to make one bomb because some material is wasted during enrichment.

The head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran Mohammad Eslami played down the significance of the discovery and said he expected it to be “put to rest” soon. He was quoted as telling Tasnim News agency, “Regarding the 84 per cent particle, which was a sample from the side of a tap in the process, the particle cannot be even seen with a microscope. What is important is the amount of material that is stored after production.”

Eslami further said that the IAEA inspectors “observed the material that had come out of the process and found that its purity was not more than 60 per cent”.

What does the US say?

Even as Iran maintains that it only wants to master nuclear technology for civil uses, there are growing concerns that the country is in fact building up its nuclear weapons program.

In fact, on Tuesday, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said that “Iran’s nuclear progress since” the Trump administration withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal “has been remarkable,” adding that in 2018, when the US withdrew, “it would have taken Iran about 12 months to produce one fissile, one bomb’s worth of fissile material.”

“Now it would take about 12 days,” he said.

Iran has greatly expanded its nuclear work since 2019, a year after the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the 2015 nuclear accord. Under the 2015 agreement, Iran was only supposed to enrich uranium up to 3.67 per cent for 15 years. The 2015 deal was designed to give Iran much-needed sanctions relief in return for curbs on its atomic programme.

US president Joe Biden has attempted to revive the agreement — Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — but talks have failed so far.

On Sunday, CIA director William Burns told CBS News that Iran;s nuclear enrichment program is more advanced than previously known and “if they chose to cross that line,” Tehran would only need a “matter of weeks” to enrich uranium capable of powering a nuclear weapon.

“To the best of our knowledge, we don’t believe that the Supreme Leader in Iran has yet made a decision to resume the weaponisation program that we judge that they suspended or stopped at the end of 2003,” Burns said. “But the other two legs of the stool, meaning enrichment programs, they’ve obviously advanced very far.”

Burns also expressed concern about the growing partnership between Russia and Iran. “It’s moving at a pretty fast clip in a very dangerous direction right now,” Burns said about the relationship between the two countries.

Also read: What danger can the Russia-Iran friendship pose?

The CIA director feared that there were signs that Russia — an ally of Iran — is proposing to help Tehran on their missile program in exchange for military aid for its war in Ukraine

Russia has been using Iran-made kamikaze drones in Ukraine since October. In the past few days, Moscow has launched a new wave of Iranian-made drones against Ukrainian cities, breaking a weekslong lull in such attacks.

A Wall Street Journal report said that Ukraine’s military had shot down 11 of 14 Iranian-made Shahed drones late Sunday and early Monday, including all nine that were aimed at the capital city of Kyiv. The remaining three drones, however, hit targets in the central city of Khmelnytskyi, with explosions there killing two rescue workers and injuring three other people

With inputs from agencies

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Is Iran close to building a nuclear bomb?
Is Iran close to building a nuclear bomb?
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