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"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
Kelsey Davenport

Iran Escalates in Response to IAEA Board Censure


December 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran responded to a censure by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors by ratcheting up uranium-enrichment activities at its underground Fordow facility, a move that increases the risk of proliferation.

Mohammad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran, addressed the 66th International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference in September in Vienna. (Photo by Askin Kiyagan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)The IAEA board on Nov. 17 passed a resolution condemning Iran for its continued failure to cooperate with a years-long investigation into past nuclear activities that should have been declared under Iran’s legally binding safeguards agreement. Prior to the vote, the IAEA reported that there was no progress on the investigation despite two meetings between Iranian and IAEA officials in September and November.

The resolution, approved by a vote of 26–2, is the second resolution the board passed this year censuring Iran for stonewalling IAEA inquiries. (See ACT, July/August 2022.) Using stronger language than the June 2022 board censure, the Nov. 17 resolution “decides” that it is “essential and urgent” for Iran to “act to fulfil its legal obligations” and clarify the outstanding safeguards issues without delay. The IAEA investigation is focused on accounting for the presence of uranium processed prior to 2003 at three locations that Iran did not identify for the agency as nuclear sites.

In a Nov. 17 statement on behalf of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Corinne Kitsell, UK ambassador to the IAEA, said Iran’s cooperation in addressing the outstanding issues is “integral to the necessary verification assurances that Iran’s declarations are complete and correct.”

The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami, said on Nov. 19 that Iran would “respond firmly” to the resolution, which he described as containing “untrue content.” Iran has continued to claim, without presenting any evidence, that the presence of the processed uranium at the undeclared locations was an act of third-party sabotage and that the IAEA investigation is based on fabricated information.

Three days later, Eslami announced that Iran had begun enrichment of uranium to 60 percent uranium-235 at Fordow, which the IAEA confirmed in a report that same day.

Uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 can be used for building nuclear weapons, but a warhead with a material enriched to that level would be bulky and inconsistent with the designs Iran pursued as part of its pre-2003 organized nuclear weapons program. But enrichment to 60 percent U-235 is shy of the 90 percent U-235 considered weapons grade. Iran has enough 60 percent U-235 stockpiled that it could produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb in less than one week.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a Nov. 20 interview with CBS that “we don’t have any information that would indicate that Iran has a nuclear weapons program at the moment.” He added that “we need to work very hard” to make sure Iran does not get there.

Iran’s choice of the Fordow facility for increasing its production of 60 percent U-235 poses a more serious proliferation risk than if it decided to increase production of 60 percent U-235 at the Natanz complex, where in April 2021 it began enriching to that level at its aboveground enrichment building. (See ACT, May 2021.)

Fordow, near the city of Qom, was transitioned to a research facility under the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Uranium enrichment was prohibited at that site for 15 years in part because the deeply buried facility would be challenging to destroy in a military strike. The design suggests the facility was built originally as a complex for producing nuclear material for weapons because its small size is not well suited to producing the large quantities of low-enriched uranium necessary to fuel a nuclear power reactor such as Iran’s Bushehr reactor.

Iran had resumed enrichment activities at Fordow in November 2019 as part of its efforts to pressure the United States to return to compliance with the nuclear deal and was using it to produce 20 percent U-235 prior to the Nov. 22 announcement.

The IAEA also reported on Nov. 22 that Iran plans to install at Fordow an additional 14 cascades of IR-6 centrifuges, six of which would replace the less efficient IR-1 centrifuges currently installed at the facility. According to an IAEA report on Nov. 10, Iran had two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges and six cascades of IR-1 centrifuges at the facility.

In a Nov. 22 statement, France, Germany, and the UK called the decision to produce 60 percent U-235 at Fordow a “challenge to the global nonproliferation system” that has “no credible civilian justification.” Iran does not operate any reactors requiring uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235.

The statement also drew attention to the negative implications Iran’s actions have for restoring the nuclear deal. “By accelerating its production of enriched uranium, Iran has taken further significant steps in hollowing out the JCPOA,” they said.

But European and U.S. officials have admitted that restoring the nuclear deal is not their primary focus at this time. French President Emmanuel Macron went a step further, telling France Inter radio on Nov. 14 that a “new framework” likely will be necessary to address Iran’s nuclear program.

Robert Malley, U.S. special envoy to Iran, speaking to reporters on Nov. 14, did not comment on how long the window for restoring the JCPOA will remain open, but said that the U.S. response “will be different and coordinated with our European allies” if Iran’s nuclear program crosses “new thresholds.”

 

After the censure, Iran ratcheted up uranium-enrichment activities, increasing the risk of proliferation.

North Korea Conducts Unprecedented Missile Drill


December 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea conducted an unprecedented missile drill involving the launch of more than 20 systems in response to South Korean-U.S. military exercises as tensions on the Korean peninsula continue to escalate.

North Korea has cited recent military exercises between South Korea and the United States as a reason for ratcheting up tests of its missile arsenal. (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)The Nov. 2 drill involved short-range ballistic and surface-to-air missile systems. The day-long barrages were designed to simulate a “strike on the enemy’s air force base” and demonstrate North Korea’s ability to “annihilate air targets at different altitudes and distances,” according to a report from the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army.

The flurry of launches responded to a large-scale South Korean-U.S. military exercise, called Vigilant Storm, involving more than 240 aircraft. Pyongyang described it as a “dangerous war drill” and an “open provocation.”

U.S. Defense Department press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the four-day exercise, which began on Oct. 31, was designed to “support our strong combined defense posture” with South Korea.

The day before the launch, Pak Jong Chon, secretary of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said the drills are part of a U.S. plan to “end the government” of North Korea. He warned that if South Korea and the United States attempt to use force against North Korea, they will “pay the most horrible price in history” and the North will use nuclear weapons “without delay.” In September, North Korea passed a law codifying its nuclear posture and mission, which includes using nuclear weapons first if necessary to repel an attack. (See ACT, October 2022.)

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price accused Pyongyang of using the joint exercise as a “pretext for provocations” and said it knows the U.S.-South Korean exercises are “purely defensive in nature.”

One missile launched on Nov. 2 landed near South Korea’s territorial waters. South Korean President Yook Suk Yeol called the test a “territorial encroachment” and ordered the military to take swift action so that North Korea pays a “clear price” for the provocation. The South Korean air force responded by firing several air-to-surface missiles near North Korea’s territorial waters.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said the response demonstrated that South Korea is willing to “firmly response to any North Korean provocations” and that it has the “capabilities and readiness” to conduct precision strikes against North Korea. “All responsibility lies with North Korea” if the situation escalates further, the statement said.

North Korea launched additional missiles on Nov. 3–5, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fired on a lofted trajectory. The ICBM tested was a new missile that appears to be designed to carry a larger payload than earlier missile models. The launch was only partially successful, according to the South Korean military.

North Korea conducted a second ICBM test on Nov. 18. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the Hwasong-17 missile launch and said that if enemies continue to pose threats, his government will “resolutely react” with nuclear weapons. North Korea first tested the Hwasong-17, which is capable of reaching anywhere in the United States, in March. (See ACT, April 2022.)

South Korea disputed North Korea’s claims that the North launched two cruise missiles on Nov. 2, saying no missiles were tracked in the area where the North claims the launch took place.

Regardless, Pyongyang’s pursuit of cruise missiles is concerning because these systems are maneuverable in midflight, unlike ballistic missiles, which fly on a set trajectory. Guiding cruise missiles midflight makes these systems more difficult to intercept, but there is an increased risk that the systems will veer off course if the guidance systems fail.

North Korea’s missile launches over the four-day period demonstrated its ability to paralyze the “operation command of the enemy” and show South Korea and the United States that they will pay the “most horrible price in history” if they attack North Korea, according to the general staff statement published on the state-run Korean Central News Agency website.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said it will not consider suspending military drills in response to North Korean threats and that exercises are a “fundamental” duty of the military.

U.S. President Joe Biden, trying to prevent regional tensions from escalating further, urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to press North Korea not to conduct a seventh nuclear test. He spoke with Xi during a Nov. 14 meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit.

South Korean intelligence has assessed that North Korea completed preparations for the nuclear explosion at its Punggye-ri test site, but it is not clear when the test will take place.

After meeting Xi, Biden told reporters he is “confident that China is not looking for North Korea to engage in further escalatory” actions, but acknowledged there are limits to China’s influence.

Biden reiterated that the United States will respond to a nuclear test but that those actions are designed to “send a clear message to North Korea” that the United States will “defend our allies” and any response “would not be directed against China.”

Ahead of the Biden-Xi meeting, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that China has an interest in “playing a constructive role in restraining” North Korea, because if “North Korea keeps going down this road, it will simply mean further enhanced American military and security presence in the region.”

Biden also met the leaders of Japan and South Korea during the G-20 meeting. They issued a trilateral statement on Nov. 13 that said any nuclear test by North Korea would lead to a “strong and resolute response from the international community.” The statement said the three countries would work together to “close gaps” in sanctions against North Korea and called on the North to “return to negotiations.”

Although North Korea’s missile launches are prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions, Japan, South Korea, and the United States have not succeeded in garnering support for new resolutions condemning the North’s actions and imposing further sanctions.

China and Russia have objected to ratcheting up pressure on North Korea at the Security Council and instead proposed limited relief from some UN sanctions to encourage the North to return to talks.

Yoon met Xi during the G-20 meeting and requested that China play a “constructive role” at the UN Security Council in response to North Korea’s provocations. Xi said China would “actively support” Yoon’s diplomatic approach toward North Korea if the North shows interest.

In what he called an “audacious initiative” for resuming dialogue, Yoon in August said South Korea would offer incentives that will “significantly improve North Korea’s economy” in exchange for a “genuine and substantive process for denuclearization.”

The United States also continues to reiterate its willingness to engage in talks with North Korea without preconditions, but the North does not appear interested in diplomacy at this time.

The Nov. 2 drill involved the launch of more than 20 systems in response to South Korean-U.S. military exercises as tensions on the Korean peninsula continue to escalate.

Global Partnership States Commit to Biosecurity Actions


December 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

A group of states committed to take further action to mitigate the risk posed by biological threats during a meeting in October of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The Global Partnership is a voluntary initiative formed in 2002 by what is now the Group of Seven industrialized nations to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Comprised of 31 member states, the partnership funds and implements projects around the world to mitigate the risk of biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear weapons.

Germany, the partnership’s current chair, prioritized addressing biological threats during its leadership of the initiative this year. (See ACT, July/August 2022.)

In a speech opening the partnership’s annual conference on Oct. 7, Susanne Baumann, state secretary at the German Federal Foreign Office, lauded the accomplishments of the partnership, calling it a “model for successful preventive security policy.” She said that the COVID-19 pandemic reminded the world “how devastating the emergence of a new pathogen can be for our societies” and “we need to re-examine our safeguards against the possible use of disease as a weapon.”

In their concluding declaration, states committed to “intensify our efforts to enhance both our national and global preparedness to prevent, detect, and respond to biological threats,” including examining how scientific developments for fighting disease are a “potential risk for abuse to develop biological and toxin weapons.”

To address these threats, the states called on parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) to make the treaty “fit for the challenges of the 21st century” and expressed support for creating an experts group to “identify concrete steps” to strengthen implementation of the convention. The states also endorsed creating at its next review conference a “systematic and structured mechanism for reviewing technical and scientific developments” that effect the BWC, such as the challenges posed by biotechnology, without impeding access to technology.

The statement also called out Russia, a former participant in the Global Partnership until its expulsion from the Group of Eight, for its “disinformation activities” that undermine the BWC and discredit “legitimate and peaceful international co-operation and assistance in the life sciences and biotechnology, including in the context of the Global Partnership.”

Although the statement did not provide specifics, Bauman in her remarks accused Russia of “leading a malicious disinformation campaign about alleged Western bioweapons in Ukraine, in the desperate and futile attempt to justify its war of aggression.”

The United States and the partnership have provided financial and technical assistance to Ukraine for biological security. In the Oct. 7 statement, the states said that the Global Partnership’s cooperative biosecurity activities have improved safety and security capacities.

States also committed to expand and intensify work on the Signature Initiative to Mitigate Biological Threats in Africa, a Global Partnership project pursued in cooperation with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. That initiative is aimed at strengthening capacities to “prevent, detect and respond to biological threats posed by high-consequence pathogens.”

 

Key states pledged stronger action to mitigate the risk posed by biological threats.

 

IAEA Board Censures Iran Again

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Board of Governors passed its second resolution this year censuring Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency’s investigation into past nuclear activities that should have been declared under Tehran’s safeguards agreement. The censure was expected, particularly after a Nov. 10 IAEA report said that there has been “no progress” in resolving the outstanding issues despite IAEA and Iranian officials meeting in September and November. In a Nov. 17 statement introducing the resolution on behalf of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the...

Iran Expands Nuclear Program Amid Protests


November 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran announced steps to further expand its nuclear program as talks with the United States to restore the 2015 nuclear deal remain at an impasse that is likely to persist given the protests in Iran.

Demonstrations in Berlin, shown above, and other major cities have voiced solidarity with Iranians who staged protests following the death of Mahsa Amini. The 22 year-old woman died in the custody of Iran’s morality police for not wearing her hijab correctly.  (Photo by Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)In an Oct. 10 report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) noted that Iran informed the agency of its plans to install an additional three cascades of IR-2 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium. The report also confirmed that Iran had completed the installation of six cascades of IR-2 centrifuges and one cascade of IR-4 centrifuges since the last IAEA report was issued on Sept. 7. The IR-2 and IR-4 centrifuges enrich uranium more efficiently than Iran’s IR-1 model, which Tehran is limited to using to produce enriched uranium under the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), until 2026.

Once operational, these more advanced machines will further expand Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity, which is already greater than at any point in the country’s history.

If negotiations resume, there is a risk that the United States will determine that Iran’s advancing nuclear program has undercut the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA. In such case, Washington may conclude that it is no longer worth the political price to lift sanctions as the deal requires and will abandon efforts to resurrect the accord.

The Biden administration is also taking action to increase pressure on Iran while negotiations remain stalled, including new sanctions targeting Iran’s petrochemical sector announced in October.

Although Iran and the United States continue to express support for restoring the deal, domestic politics make this increasingly challenging.

The Raisi government is facing widespread protests in Iran after a young woman, Mahsa Amini, died in the hospital in September after being beaten by police for not adhering to the country’s strict dress code for women. Tehran has accused foreign powers of instigating the protests.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kananni said on Oct. 10 that the United States and Europe are linking the negotiations on the JCPOA to “recent issues in Iran.” Iran will not allow any country to meddle in its internal affairs, he said.

It is unclear what linkages Kananni was referencing, given that talks on the JCPOA remain stalled. U.S. officials have said Washington can support the protestors and a nuclear deal at the same time, but it would be politically more difficult for the Europeans and the United States to reach an agreement with Iran while the government in Tehran is violently suppressing the protests, particularly before the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 8.

In an Oct. 14 speech, U.S. President Joe Biden said that the United States stands “with the citizens, the brave women of Iran…who are demonstrating to secure their very basic, fundamental rights.” Two days earlier, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the nuclear talks are “not our focus right now” and that the Biden administration is prioritizing “shining a spotlight” on the protestors. The administration also has lifted some sanctions, such as measures that restricted access to the internet and communications technologies, which officials say will support the protestors.

Even after the elections, the U.S. political will may not exist to restore the nuclear agreement with Iran because of the protests. “The Europeans had already lost their patience for dealing with Iran, and now we’ve lost our appetite” even though a deal “would still yield important nonproliferation benefits,” an official from a European country that is a party to the deal said on Oct. 13.

The Biden administration is also under pressure not to reach an agreement with Iran at this time, given that a restored JCPOA would allow the Iranian government to access frozen assets and benefit from sanctions relief.

In addition to voicing support for the protestors, the EU and the United States imposed sanctions on Iranian individuals and entities involved in the crackdown. The EU also passed sanctions over Iran’s sale of drones to Russia. Russia has used these drones in its war against Ukraine, including attacks on civilians.

French Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anne-Claire Legendre told reporters in an Oct. 13 press briefing that the use of drones to bombard civilian targets “likely constitute war crimes” and violates UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Under that resolution, Iran is prohibited from exporting missile systems or unmanned aerial vehicles, such as drones, that are capable of delivering a weapon of mass destruction.

That threshold is defined as carrying a 500-kilogram payload a distance of more than 300 kilometers.

If JCPOA talks resume, a deal is far from certain. A major issue preventing agreement is Iran’s demands that the IAEA close its investigation into undeclared nuclear materials and activities from the pre-2003 period within a specific time frame and to refrain from further investigations.

The United States has made clear that it will not tie the IAEA’s hands, but will support closing the investigation when the agency is satisfied that Iran has cooperated with its inquiries. (See ACT, October 2022.)

Mohammad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, met IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi on Sept. 26 to resume talks over how to address the agency’s investigation, which has remained stalled since May.

Tweets from Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian suggested that the two sides had agreed on a path forward for resolving the safeguards investigation, but the IAEA made no similar statement.

Grossi confirmed that the meeting took place, but said only that there is a lot of work ahead to reach a conclusion.

Even if the IAEA issue can be resolved, the United States is concerned that if talks resume, Iran may raise new demands or attempt to reopen closed issues, as it has in the past.

Robert Malley, U.S. special envoy for Iran, told NPR on Oct. 7 that all other parties agreed to a deal to restore the JCPOA in March and then again in August.

But each time, he said, Iran countered with “some new demands, most of the time either an unrealistic demand or one that was extraneous to the nuclear talks, something that had nothing to do with it.”

Iran’s nuclear advances and crackdown on protests added new uncertainties to efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal. 

Russia Claims to Federalize Ukrainian Nuclear Plant


November 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

The director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met the presidents of Ukraine and Russia to press for the establishment of a zone of protection around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, but new Russian claims on the Ukrainian facility likely will complicate these efforts.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (L), director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on Oct. 11 as part of his effort to secure support for a zone of protection around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. (Photo by Pavel Bednyakov/AFP via Getty Images)In an Oct. 11 press release, the IAEA said that Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi, who visited Kyiv on Oct. 6 and St. Petersburg on Oct. 11, engaged in “intense consultations” with Ukraine and Russia over establishing the protection zone and emphasizing the urgency of the situation. The agency did not indicate what barriers remain to reaching an agreement, but Grossi was quoted as saying, “We can’t waste any more time.”

Prior to Grossi’s arrival in Moscow, attacks in the vicinity of the Zaporizhzhia power plant again severed the power lines connecting the facility to external power sources. Although the lines were restored within days, Grossi called the attack “tremendously irresponsible” and said on Oct. 9 that the situation remains “untenable.” The nuclear reactors were not operating at the time, but the plant relies on external power to run the cooling systems that prevent the reactor units from melting down. (See ACT, October 2022.)

Grossi’s visits to Kyiv and St. Petersburg followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia was federalizing the Zaporizhzhia plant. In an Oct. 5 statement, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said that Zaporizhzhia is “now on the territory of the Russian Federation” and should be “operated under the supervision of our relevant agencies.” He said Russia’s decision “is designed to ensure the safe operation of the nuclear power plant.”

Moscow also claimed to have annexed the Zaporizhzhia region and other areas, under varying degrees of control of the Russian military, after a September referendum, which has been widely denounced by the international community as illegitimate and having no legal effect.

In response to the federalization announcement, Petro Kotin, the head of Ukraine’s energy agency Energoatom, reiterated that the plant will “work under Ukrainian law, within the Ukrainian energy system.”

An individual who worked in Ukraine’s energy sector told Arms Control Today in an email on Oct. 13 that there is a “near zero chance” that the IAEA will be able to negotiate a zone of protection around the Zaporizhzhia power plant after Russia’s “illegitimate federalization” of the facility. Putin will not want to face any restrictions on territory he now claims is part of Russia, the source said, even though Moscow has an interest in preventing further damage to the Zaporizhzhia site. Russia plans to connect the reactors to the power grid in Crimea, but it is not clear it will have the technical capacity to do so without the help of Ukrainian personnel. (See ACT, September 2022.)

After the federalization announcement, Russia said it was planning to restart two of the six reactors. A new four-person IAEA team arrived at Zaporizhzhia on Oct. 7 to relieve the prior agency team monitoring the facility. The new team confirmed on Oct. 14 that preparatory activity to restart one of the reactors had commenced but the restart would take “a number of days.”

Ukrainian firefighters work to put out a fire after a strike in Zaporizhzhia on October 6, amid the Russian war on Ukraine. One day earlier, Russia laid formal claim to the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, which it has occupied militarily since early March. (Photo by Marina Moiseyenko / AFP via Getty Images)Although Russia attacked the nuclear power plant in March and has occupied it since then in violation of international law, Ukrainian personnel have continued to operate the plant under significant duress. After the Ukrainian head of the Zaporizhzhia team, Igor Murashov, was kidnapped by the Russians in early October and held before being released, Kotin said the plant’s operations would be directed from Energoatom’s central offices. Grossi said Murashov’s absence had an “immediate and serious impact on decision-making in ensuring the safety and security of the plant.”

To solidify its hold on the nuclear power plant, Russia is demanding that the Ukrainian plant operators sign new employment contracts with Rosatom, Russia’s state-run nuclear energy company. Grossi said the workers face “unacceptable pressure” due to the Russian demands. He said he has “made clear that the staff must be allowed to carry out their vital tasks without undue interference or pressure.”

Laura Holgate, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, referred to the referendum as a sham. She reiterated that Zaporizhzhia and the power it produces “rightfully belong to Ukraine.”

During the IAEA General Conference on Sept. 26, Anna Moskwa, the Polish minister for climate and the environment, called for suspending Russia’s membership from the agency if Russia does not “leave all Ukrainian power plants immediately.” If suspension does not work, “let’s kick them out” of the IAEA, she said, noting that the IAEA is about “safety and security of nuclear technologies” and Russia’s actions are a “test of credibility” for the agency.

Russia and Ukraine also used the IAEA meeting to trade accusations. In a statement on Sept. 26, Ukraine said that Russia is a “nuclear terrorist state” and the only country that “shells facilities” at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and “terrorizes and tortures” its employees. Ukraine called for IAEA member states to “use all levers of influence” to stop Russia’s occupation of the nuclear facility.

In its Sept. 26 statement, Russia denied responsibility for the attacks on Zaporizhzhia, instead blaming Ukraine for attacking the power plant and sabotage groups for targeting power lines. Russia has no armed forces at the site, only national guard personnel performing security duties, the statement said. Moscow believes that “assurance of nuclear safety and physical protection” is an “absolute priority,” the statement added.

Although IAEA member states did not take direct action against Russia during their meeting, they adopted a resolution on nuclear security that specifically referenced the risk posed to Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. The resolution did not mention Russia by name, but noted the “significant loss of control” over the Zaporizhzhia plant and the “negative consequences on nuclear security.” The resolution also recalled the “need to immediately cease all actions against and at nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes.”

Russia attempted to block a vote on the resolution by walking out of the meeting and pressuring other states to do the same in order to prevent a voting quorum. Russia’s efforts failed, and the resolution was adopted on Sept. 30.

 

IAEA efforts to establish a zone of protection around Zaporizhzhia are running into obstacles.

Ukraine Shuts Down Zaporizhzhia


October 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Ukraine shut down the remaining operational reactor at its Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in September amid increased fighting around the facility and deteriorating conditions for the plant’s workers.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (R), director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), speaks with Ukrainian Minister of Energy German Galushenko on arrival of the IAEA inspection mission to Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine on Aug. 31.  (Photo by Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)Although shutting down the reactors reduces the likelihood of a large-scale release of radiation in the event of further attacks or an accident, it does not eliminate the risk entirely. The site still needs external power to run the cooling systems that prevent the shuttered reactor units from melting down. Also, spent nuclear fuel is stored onsite and could release radiation if struck during an attack.

Multiple attacks severing the main and backup power lines for the plant, including during a period in September when it was completely without external power, underscored the precarious situation that Zaporizhzhia’s operators faced in trying to keep the reactors operating safely and the shutdown units cool.

Before Zaporizhzhia was reconnected to offsite power, Petro Kotin, the head of Ukrainian nuclear operator Energoatom, warned that operators would have to rely on diesel generators to cool the shuttered reactors after the last unit was shut down on Sept. 11. That unit had been providing power for the site. He described the generators as the “last line of defense before a radiation accident.”

The blackout underscored the continued risk posed by fighting in the area and led to renewed calls from world leaders to establish a no-fire zone around the Zaporizhzhia plant and for Russia to withdraw its military forces from the nuclear facility.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who visited the site on Sept. 3 with an agency team, said on Sept. 17 that the “power status has improved” but the “general situation for the plant located in the middle of a war zone remains precarious.” Members of the IAEA team remain at Zaporizhzhia to continue assessing the safety and security of the facility.

In a report on the site visit, the IAEA noted that “while past events had not yet triggered a nuclear emergency,” there is a “constant threat to the nuclear safety and security because critical safety functions” at the site could be impacted by continued shelling.

In the report, the IAEA renewed its calls to halt shelling immediately in the vicinity of Zaporizhzhia to avoid further damaging the plant and to establish a “nuclear safety and security zone.”

Grossi told reporters on Sept. 20 that he is engaged in talks with Russia and Ukraine about first establishing a zone of protection around the site and then pushing for demilitarization of the area. Grossi said he would not be deterred by Russia’s Sep. 19 announcement to mobilize new troops and urged Moscow and Kiev to agree to the protection zone “as soon as possible.”

The IAEA Board of Governors echoed the report’s call for Russia to cease all actions against Zaporizhzhia and all other nuclear facilities in Ukraine. In a resolution approved on Sept. 15, the board also denounced Moscow for its “persistent violation actions” against nuclear sites. Of the 35 states represented on the board, 26 supported the resolution, seven abstained, and Russia and China were opposed. The board passed a similar resolution on March 3 after Russia occupied the Chernobyl nuclear facility. (See ACT, April 2022.)

In expressing support for the resolution, Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said on Sept. 15 that “Russia alone will be responsible for any resulting nuclear hazards, and Russia alone can prevent them by heeding international calls to remove its forces from those facilities and withdraw from Ukraine altogether.”

She also endorsed Ukraine’s proposal to demilitarize the areas surrounding Zaporizhzhia.

Russia continues to deny that it has attacked the Zaporizhzhia plant and blames Ukraine for shelling the facility. (See ACT, September 2022.)

Alexey Likhachev, head of the Russian nuclear energy operator Rosatom, accused the IAEA of allowing “a political component” to influence its work in Ukraine. He said on Sept. 18 that the IAEA knows “full well what is happening” and who is behind the attacks on Zaporizhzhia.

Although Russia attacked Zaporizhzhia and continues to occupy the nuclear site in violation of international law, it appears to have an interest in keeping the facility operational.

Kotin said that Russia has a “crazy idea” to connect Zaporizhzhia to the energy grid in Crimea, which Russia has occupied since 2014, and shared a plan to do so with Ukrainian personnel managing the nuclear power plant.

Rosatom has a presence at Zaporizhzhia, but it would likely be challenging for the energy corporation to operate the reactors and connect the power plant to the grid in Crimea without support from Ukrainian personnel working at the facility. The reactors were designed and largely constructed when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, but they have been extensively updated and modernized since then.

In addition to the threats posed by shelling, the IAEA has drawn attention to the extreme stress that the Ukrainian plant operators are facing and the negative impact that has on safety and security at the nuclear plant.

After shelling cut off electricity to the nearby town of Energodar, where many of the plant’s personnel live, Grossi said on Sept. 9 that given the “dire circumstances that the people of Energodar are facing, there is the significant risk of an impact on the availability of essential staff on site to continue to safely and securely operate” Zaporizhzhia.

He described the situation in Energodar and the lack of offsite power for the nuclear power plant as “completely unacceptable.” He added that the “dramatic development demonstrates the absolute imperative to establish a nuclear safety and security protection zone now.”

Although the situation at Zaporizhzhia poses the most serious risk for a radiation release, Energoatom said that Russian shells struck the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant on Sept. 19. A blast damaged transmission lines and buildings at the plant, but the reactors were not impacted and continue to operate, Energoatom said.

Grossi said the explosions at the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant “all too clearly demonstrate the potential dangers also at other nuclear facilities in the country” and that “any military action that threatens nuclear safety and security is unacceptable and must stop immediately.”

The shutdown occurred amid increased fighting around the facility and deteriorating conditions for the plant’s workers.

Delay Risks Effort to Restore Iran Deal


October 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said he is serious about reaching a deal with the United States to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, but Iran’s advancing nuclear program threatens prospects for reviving the accord if talks remain stalled until after the U.S. election in November.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addressed the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)Iran and the United States, which have been negotiating indirectly through the European Union for the past 18 months, came close to reaching an agreement to restore the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in August before new Iranian demands stalled progress.

In his address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21, Raisi said that the United States “trampled on the accord” and that Tehran cannot trust Washington to meet its commitments without “guarantees and assurances.”

In his address to the United Nations that same day, U.S. President Joseph Biden also reiterated his commitment to restoring the JCPOA if “Iran steps up to its obligations.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sept. 10 that the prospect for a deal in the “near term” is unlikely, but did not mention pausing talks until after the U.S. elections on Nov. 8.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said more explicitly that he expects the stalemate to continue given the “political situation” in the United States and that he does not “have anything more to propose” to break the impasse. Borrell also said he did not expect progress at the UN General Assembly session, despite Raisi’s presence and planned meetings with other states that are party to the JCPOA.

In a Sept. 20 meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Raisi criticized the European parties to the JCPOA for acting in an unconstructive manner, while Macron urged him to take the deal at hand. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told reporters ahead of the meeting that there “will not be a better offer on the table and it’s up to Iran to take the right decisions.”

If talks remain stalled, Iran’s nuclear advances could deal a fatal blow to efforts to restore the accord. The fact that Iran’s diminishing breakout time, or the period it would take to produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb, is less than 10 days does not appear to be influencing the Biden administration’s calculus on whether restoring the JCPOA remains in the U.S. national security interest. But irreversible research and development and gaps in monitoring are likely to influence U.S. thinking.

According to a Sept. 7 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran is continuing to install and operate additional advanced centrifuges, which can enrich uranium more efficiently. The JCPOA prohibits Iran from producing enriched uranium with these advanced machines and strictly limits its production of the machines. The report also noted that Iran is continuing to experiment with the setup of its advanced centrifuge cascades, installing some in a way that allows a quicker switch between enrichment levels. The information that Iran gains from these processes cannot be reversed and dilutes the nonproliferation benefits of a restored accord.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom said in a Sept. 10 statement that Iran’s advancing nuclear program has escalated “way beyond any plausible civilian justification.”

Gaps in IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program also put at risk efforts to restore the JCPOA. In the Sept. 7 report, the IAEA raised concerns about its ability to determine Iran’s inventory of centrifuges in the event of a restored nuclear deal. Inspectors have not had access to Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing facilities since February 2021, and in June 2022, Iran disconnected cameras at those sites that were collecting data for the agency to use to reconstruct a record of nuclear activity if the JCPOA is restored. (See ACT, July/August 2022; March 2021.)

Even if Iran cooperates and provides documentation about activities at the sites during the gap in monitoring, “considerable challenges would remain to confirm the consistency of Iran’s declared inventory of centrifuges,” the agency’s report said. The challenge in establishing a baseline inventory could complicate IAEA efforts to verify that Tehran is abiding by the JCPOA’s terms.

If talks resume, a deal is far from certain. In its most recent response to Borrell’s draft text, Iran included demands that the years-long IAEA safeguards investigation be closed by an earlier date than the EU proposed. Iran is also seeking assurances that the agency would not conduct future investigations into Iran’s nuclear past. But Borrell has little space to negotiate on the issues because the investigation relates to Iran’s obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to declare all nuclear materials and activities to the IAEA. Only the agency can determine if Iran has provided credible cooperation to explain the presence of the uranium that inspectors detected at three undeclared locations in Iran. The IAEA is also obligated to follow up on any credible evidence of undeclared nuclear materials in the future.

The Biden administration has made clear it will not pressure the agency to prematurely close the investigation but will support closing the file on Iran at the IAEA Board of Governors when the agency is satisfied. (See ACT, September 2022.)

The European nations involved in the negotiations (France, Germany, and the UK) said Iran’s failure to cooperate with the agency and its demands regarding the safeguards investigation “raises serious doubts as to Iran’s intentions and commitment to a successful outcome.”

The Iranian Foreign Ministry called the European statement “unconstructive,” while the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) criticized the IAEA characterization of the investigation. The AEOI said that “there are no disagreements over [Iran’s] calculated materials” and that “simply observing contamination in a few places cannot be considered as implying the presence of undeclared nuclear materials.”

But Iran has not provided any evidence to support its claim that the presence of uranium at the undeclared locations was a result of contamination, according to a May 30 report by the IAEA.

Although the IAEA board did not take action against Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency’s investigation during its Sept. 12–16 meeting in Vienna, France, Germany, the UK, and the United States issued a statement endorsed by more than 50 countries encouraging Iran to meet its safeguards obligations and address the IAEA’s questions.

Iran and the United States came close to agreement in August before new Iranian demands stalled progress.

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