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Political tensions unravel plan to convert Iranian nuclear site to civilian uses

A complicated effort to convert an Iranian military site into a civilian research center has hit a major snag. On 5 December, Russia’s TVEL nuclear fuel company announced it has suspended work to produce stable isotopes for medicine and research at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, a once-clandestine nuclear site near Iran’s holy city of Qom.

The project’s suspension is the latest casualty of the gradual unraveling of the nuclear deal that world powers struck with Iran in 2015 to deter it from pursuing nuclear weapons. After the United States pulled out of the agreement in May 2018, the other parties sought to preserve the accord, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But discussions foundered, prompting Iran to resume some nuclear activities the agreement had curtailed.

The JCPOA had prohibited using equipment at Fordow to enrich uranium for 15 years. The deal called for developing one wing of the two-wing, bunkerlike facility, which sits under a mountain, as an international physics center. But that concept that gained little traction as signatories puzzled over what might be installed in the cramped space. Ultimately, Iran moved on its own to install instrumentation for an analytical laboratory dubbed the Material Engineering Development and National Research Center.

Work in the other wing has hewed more closely to the JCPOA’s terms, which called for reconfiguring 348 IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow to produce stable isotopes. In a pilot effort that began in 2017, TVEL experts in recent months had converted 11 centrifuges to enrich isotopes of two elements: xenon and tellurium. “It was running under the radar, but progress was being made,” says Richard Johnson, an analyst with the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, D.C., who previously worked on JCPOA implementation at the U.S. Department of State. Slowing TVEL’s painstaking work was uranium contamination leftover from the enrichment activities predating the nuclear deal. Nevertheless, Johnson says, in JCPOA partner meetings Russia had shared ambitious plans to convert IR-1’s to produce a range of stable isotopes that could be used in research and disease treatment.

Those plans are now on hold. In its latest move to distance itself from the JCPOA, Iran on 6 November resumed enriching uranium hexafluoride gas at Fordow, producing material with a level of the fissile isotope uranium-235 suitable for commercial power reactors. (Weapons require a higher level of enrichment.) The U.S. State Department then declared that starting 15 December, civilian projects at Fordow—for now only the stable isotope production—would no longer be exempt from punitive sanctions.

In announcing the project’s suspension, TVEL declared that it was “technologically impossible” to carry out stable isotope production in the same room as uranium enrichment. “We are taking a break now,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told TASS, the government news agency, on 7 December. He explained that experts are reexamining how the project might yet be revived—and what sanction-related penalties Russia might incur if it were to resume. “We don’t abandon the project,” he said.