The head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), Ali Akbar Salehi, said on 8 April in a message marking National Nuclear Technology Day that Iran’s nuclear activities were continuing despite the novel coronavirus outbreak and continuing US sanctions.
Salehi noted that the planned celebrations for the day had been postponed because of restriction measures in place related to the pandemic. However, earlier on 5 April, he told Fars news agency that nuclear activities, as well as research and development on the nuclear fuel cycle, uranium conversion, and enrichment were continuing unimpeded by those restrictions.
Stressing that Iran’s nuclear activities were solely for peaceful purposes, Salehi noted in his message that a new generation of centrifuges would soon come online at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant. He said Iran's enriched uranium production and stockpile were at the same level as before the reductions imposed by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and heavy-water storage was taking place without any restrictions.
Under the JCPOA - signed with the USA, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany - Iran had agreed to limit its nuclear development programme in return for the lifting of sanctions.
However, tensions rose between Iran and the USA after Washington increased economic sanctions against Iran following President Donald Trump's unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018.
The other JCPOA signatories continue to support the deal, but according to Iran, did not do enough to mitigate the effect of the renewed US sanctions and Iran began to reduce its commitments under in line with Articles 26 and 36 of the agreement. In January, Iran took the final step in reducing its obligations, removing the last operational restriction on the development of its nuclear programme, which it said would subsequently be developed solely based on its technical needs.
Salehi said the process of building Arak's heavy water research reactor (new design) was advancing in cooperation with foreign parties and that, assisted by Russia, work on constructing two new nuclear reactors in Bushehr, southern Iran, was underway.
Under the JCPOA, Iran had agreed to redesign the Arak research reactor, to limit its potential output of plutonium. The work was to be done over five years by Iran, China, and the USA. When the USA withdrew from the agreement, the UK took its place. Five waivers were put in place after the US withdrawal and imposition of sanctions on Iran. They were intended to enable European powers, Russia and China to deploy personnel to four Iranian nuclear sites to continue work with their Iranian counterparts under the JCPOA without being subject to American sanctions. The work includes modifying the heavy water reactor in Arak, converting the Fordow enrichment facility to produce stable isotopes, and fuel supplies for the Bushehr nuclear plant and the Tehran research reactor. The US had extended the waivers in May, July and October 2019 and again on 30 March 2020.
On 8 April, AEOI spokesman Behruz Kamalvandi said work on construction of unit 2 at Bushehr was 30% complete and that it would be operational within five years. He added that work would begin on unit 3 within two years.
On 3 March the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued two reports on Iran’s nuclear programme - one public and the other confidential, distributed only to IAEA member states.
The public report noted that enriched uranium reserves in Iran exceeded the JCPOA limit five times. Reserves totalled 1510kg, while the limit set by the agreement is 300kg. Iran's enrichment levels are currently believed to be around 4.5%, which is above the limit of 3.67% set by the JCPOA, but below the 20% level Iran had previously achieved.
The second IAEA report criticised Iran for refusing to provide access to two nuclear facilities and for failing to participate in substantive discussions to answer agency questions related to possible undeclared nuclear materials and activities related to nuclear activities.
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi reportedly urged Tehran to cooperate urgently, including "providing immediate access to these facilities”.