Tehran: International nuclear monitors have started conducting unannounced inspections at a uranium enrichment site in Iran after it hiked levels closer to weapons-grade last year.
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported late Wednesday its staff had been granted the authority to conduct the snap inspections at Iran’s mountainside enrichment facility in Fordow.
Iran says its nuclear work is for peaceful purposes but Western and regional countries say it’s aiming to build an atomic weapon. They also cite concerns over its conventional military advances. On Thursday Iran blamed Israel for attacking a munitions depot last weekend with drones, in an attack that has escalated tensions in the Middle East.
Inspectors discovered modifications that should have been reported during a surprise visit to the plant last month, the IAEA said.
During an unannounced inspection at the Fordow plant on January 21, the International Atomic Energy Agency detected that “two IR-6 centrifuge cascades... were interconnected in a way that was substantially different from the mode of operation declared by Iran to the agency”, according to a confidential report seen by AFP.
Iran’s said on Thursday that the IAEA’s latest position on Tehran’s nuclear work was not correct, according to Mizan news agency.
“The IAEA inspector’s interpretation was incorrect but he reported it to the agency ... We immediately provided the explanation to the IAEA on the same day,” Iran’s nuclear chief Mohammad Eslami said.
Since late last year the two centrifuge cascades have been used to produce uranium enriched to up to 60 per cent, the report to member states added.
After the IAEA carried out the inspection at Fordow, Iran “subsequently informed the Agency that it had switched to this mode of operation on 16 January”.
The agency did not specify what kind of changes were made to the interconnection between the centrifuge cascades.
But IAEA head Rafael Grossi expressed concern that Iran had “implemented a substantial change in the design information of FFEP in relation to the production of high enriched uranium without informing the Agency in advance”.
“This is inconsistent with Iran’s obligations under its Safeguards Agreement and undermines the Agency’s ability to adjust the safeguards approach for FFEP and implement effective safeguards measures at this facility,” he said in a statement.
Despite stonewalling an IAEA investigation into past nuclear activities and removing some monitoring equipment, Iran continues sites allowing expansive inspections, it said.
“The Agency has had regular access to Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant and continued to monitor and verify Iran’s enrichment-related activities at the facility,” IAEA Director General wrote in the 2-page restricted report.
Iran’s November decision to produce highly-enriched uranium at Fordow triggered a stricter set of monitoring measures to be put in place, including the possibility of snap inspections. That allowed the IAEA on January 16 to detect modifications to the centrifuges at Fordow that should have been reported before the work was done. Iran amended its report on the new mode of operation on January 25.
Despite ceasing to implement stricter monitoring measures imposed by its defunct nuclear deal with world powers over its programme, Iran has still been subject to record IAEA inspections, according to the most recent data.
The IAEA’s board of governors meets next month in Vienna to consider Iran’s programme.
Last week, Grossi told lawmakers in the European Parliament that Iran had “amassed enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons - not one at this point”.
Speaking about Iran’s recent atomic activities, including enriching uranium toward a level needed for nuclear weapons - well beyond the limits of the landmark 2015 deal curbing Iran’s nuclear capabilities - Grossi said the trajectory Iran was on “is certainly not a good one”.
The agreement, known as the JCPOA, fell apart after the US withdrew in 2018 under former president Donald Trump, and negotiations to revive it have since stalled.