Iran has accumulated 1,200 kilograms of enriched uranium — more than doubling the stockpile it had just three months ago, according to a statement from a senior official at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran on 25 January.

That’s enough to build one atomic bomb, if the uranium is further refined to make it weapons-grade — a process that could take just two to three months , says David Albright, a nuclear-policy specialist at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington DC. But building actual weapons would take much longer, he adds.

If confirmed, the rate of Iran’s expanding uranium stockpile “shifts things dramatically”, Albright adds. But he and others caution that there is no evidence that Iran is rushing to build a bomb — at least not yet.

Tensions between Iran and the United States have escalated in the past month. On 3 January, a US drone strike killed Qasem Soleimani, the key architect of Iran’s regional military influence. In response, Iran shot missiles at US bases in Iraq.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal between Iran and six global powers that limited its nuclear capabilities in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, is now in serious jeopardy. US President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in May 2018, and Iran announced in May last year that it would resume uranium enrichment.

Has Iran tried to build nuclear weapons in the past?

Building nuclear weapons is expensive and requires technical expertise, such as enriching uranium. The fissionable isotope uranium-235, which makes up less than 1% of natural uranium, must be separated from uranium-238, which is by far the more common isotope.

Iran has a strong physical-sciences tradition, and has had an active nuclear programme for decades. The country has always maintained that this was purely for peaceful purposes, such as producing isotopes for medical use. But in the early 2000s, Iran appeared to have a crash programme to build at least five uranium fission bombs, according to US intelligence assessments and international observers.

Reports in the mid-2000s by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggested that Iran could be actively working to build a nuclear arsenal. That would be a violation of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which Iran has signed. In 2003, bowing to international pressure, the country agreed to cut down its nuclear activities drastically — but not completely.

Does Iran now have enough enriched uranium to build nuclear bombs?

Last November, the IAEA found that Iran had accumulated around 550 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride that was “moderately enriched” to less than 4.5% 235U. It is unclear what material the Iranian official was referring to in his 25 January claim, but it is presumed to be 1,200 kilograms of moderately enriched uranium hexafluoride. If further enriched, this quantity could yield more than 30 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium, enough to build one fission bomb. The IAEA is expected to release its latest report on the Iranian nuclear programme, including its assessment of stockpiles, in early March at the latest.

Source » nature