Iran atomic inspections continued at a record pace last year

Bloomberg – Iran’s nuclear program received record scrutiny last year from international monitors who triggered snap inspections in the Islamic Republic.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 2019 Safeguards Implementation Report shows that monitors continued receiving wide access to Iranian nuclear sites even as new questions arose over the completeness of the country’s declared atomic stockpile, according to the restricted document seen by Bloomberg.

“The agency continued to verify and monitor the nuclear-related commitments of the Islamic Republic of Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” read the 129-page report prepared for diplomats that accounts for resources spent on enforcing the landmark 2015 agreement among world powers.

The IAEA’s roster of 269 monitors and analysts who focus on Iran triggered a record number of inspections. There were 1,103 person-days spent on the ground in Iran, combing through sites where Iran enriches uranium and generates nuclear power. The agency bolstered on-the-ground inspections with “more extensive and timely relevant present and historical images” captured by satellites, according to the document.

While inspectors continue to survey top sites, Iranian officials have obstructed efforts to clarify past nuclear activities, the IAEA reported in March, in a finding that threatened to further hinder international efforts to salvage what’s left of the deal since the U.S withdrew in 2018 and reimposed punishing sanctions. The Trump administration has pressured other governments to do the same as Iran has retreated from its own commitments under the accord due to U.S pressure.

Iran won’t let inspectors visit a pair of locations where they suspect nuclear-related activities took place some 15 years ago. That finding reopened an inquiry into the Islamic Republic’s past activities that Tehran’s government thought it had settled by agreeing to the nuclear pact with world powers.

Monitors called 33 snap inspections last year. That figure fell from a record 40 in 2018 but continued to underscore the IAEA is still exercising one of its most potent powers won under the 2015 accord. Inspectors didn’t have the right to call surprise visits before the agreement.

The source of two-decade-old uranium traces discovered during a visit to an undeclared location in Tehran has flummoxed the IAEA for months. Monitors still don’t know how particles of uranium hexafluoride — a precursor to enriched uranium — made it into a warehouse that was first identified by Israel.

IAEA inspectors are responsible for detecting gram-level changes in nuclear-material inventories around the world. In 2019, they accounted for volumes of enriched uranium and plutonium sufficient to make 216,448 nuclear weapons if diverted for military purposes.

The volume of safeguarded low-enriched uranium used to fuel nuclear reactors declined for a second-consecutive year, reversing a 15-year-old growth trend as power reactors have come offline in parts of the world.

“For the first time in over a decade, no appreciable growth was observed in 2019 in the total amount of source material under agency safeguards,” the document reported.

(Adds snap inspections chart following the sixth paragraph)