Context:

Iran began enriching uranium to 60%, its highest level ever, edging closer to weapons-grade levels to pressure talks in Vienna aimed at restoring its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on its main atomic site.

Relevance:

GS-II: International Relations (Foreign Policy and Treaties that affect India’s Interests)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. About the current increase in enrichment by Iran
  2. About Uranium Enrichment
  3. About the 2015 Nuclear Deal

About the current increase in enrichment by Iran

  • A top official said only a few grams an hour of uranium gas would be enriched up to 60 % purity — triple the level it once did but at a rate far slower than what Tehran could produce.
  • International inspectors already said Iran planned to do so above-ground at its Natanz nuclear site, not deep within its underground halls hardened to withstand airstrikes.
  • The move is likely to raise tensions even as Iran negotiates in Vienna over a way to allow the U.S. back into the agreement and lift the crushing economic sanctions it faces. However, its scope also provides Iran with a way to quickly de-escalate if it chose.
  • While 60 % is higher than any level Iran previously enriched uranium, it is still lower than weapons-grade levels of 90 %.
  • Iran had been enriching up to 20 % — even that was a short technical step to weapons grade. The deal limited Iran’s enrichment to 3.67 %.
  • Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, though the West and the IAEA say Tehran had an organized military nuclear program up until the end of 2003.
  • Iran previously had said it could use uranium enriched up to 60 % for nuclear-powered ships. However, the Islamic Republic currently has no such ships in its navy.

About Uranium Enrichment

  • Natural uranium consists of two different isotopes – nearly 99% U-238 and only around 0.7% of U-235.
  • U-235 is a fissile material that can sustain a chain reaction in a nuclear reactor.
  • Enrichment process increases the proportion of U-235 through the process of isotope separation (U-238 is separated from U-235).
  • For nuclear weapons, enrichment is required upto 90% or more which is known as Highly Enriched Uranium/weapons-grade uranium.
  • For nuclear reactors, enrichment is required upto 3-4% which is known as Low Enriched Uranium/reactor-grade uranium.
  • Highly enriched uranium has a concentration of 20% or more and is used in research reactors.

About the 2015 Nuclear Deal

  • In 2015, Iran with the P5+1 group of world powers – the USA, UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany agreed on a long-term deal on its nuclear programme.
  • The deal was named as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and in common parlance as Iran Nuclear Deal.
  • Under the deal, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear activity in return for the lifting of sanctions and access to global trade.
  • The agreement allowed Iran to accumulate small amounts of uranium for research but it banned the enrichment of uranium, which is used to make reactor fuel and nuclear weapons.
  • Iran was also required to redesign a heavy-water reactor being built, whose spent fuel would contain plutonium suitable for a bomb and to allow international inspections.
  • In May 2018, the USA abandoned the deal criticising it as flawed and reinstated and tightened its sanctions.
  • Since sanctions were tightened, Iran has been steadily breaking some of its commitments to pressure the remaining signatories to find a way to provide sanctions relief.

Concerns

  • Enrichment could shorten Iran’s time it would take to develop a nuclear bomb.
  • Previously the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expressed serious concerns over Iran’s blocking of inspections of two suspect locations of Uranium enrichment for more than four months.

-Source: The Hindu

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