Global Updates: Iran starts enriching Uranium up to 20%, seizes tanker in strait

Iran starts enriching Uranium up to 20%

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In News: Iran starts enriching Uranium

  • Iran has again begun enriching uranium to levels unseen since its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

News Summary:

  • Iran has again begun enriching uranium to levels unseen since its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
  • It has also seized a South Korean-flagged tanker near the crucial Strait of Hormuz, in a challenge to the West that further raised Mideast tensions.
    • After the US sanctions, South Korea has frozen billions of dollars in Iranian assets.
  • Both decisions appeared aimed at increasing its leverage with the west with the US President Donald Trump’s stay in office coming to an end.
  • Increasing enrichment puts Iran closer to weapons-grade uranium levels of 90%, creating pressure on the incoming US President Joe Biden to quickly negotiate. 

Iran starts enriching Uranium up to 20%
Iran starts enriching Uranium up to 20%

About: Uranium

  • Uranium is composed mainly of two isotopes – U-235 and U-238.
    1. Uranium-235 and U-238 are chemically identical, but differ in their physical properties, notably their mass.
    2. The nucleus of the U-235 atom contains 92 protons and 143 neutrons, giving an atomic mass of 235 units.
    3. The U-238 nucleus also has 92 protons but has 146 neutrons – three more than U-235 – and therefore has a mass of 238 units.
  • Natural uranium contains 99.3% U-238 isotope and 0.7% U-235 isotope.
  • U-238 isotope is not fissile i.e. it cannot start a nuclear reaction and sustain it.
  • On the other hand, the U-235 isotope is useful for nuclear power reactors, as well as for nuclear weapons.
    1. A nuclear power plant requires uranium with 3-4% U-235, known as Low-enriched uranium (LEU) or reactor-grade uranium
    2. A nuclear weapon needs uranium with 90% U-235, known as Highly-enriched uranium (HEU).

About: Uranium Enrichment

  • As nuclear reactors and weapons need higher percent of fissile U-235 isotope, it is attained through Uranium Enrichment.
  • For this, Isotope separation is used, which is a physical process to concentrate (‘enrich’) one isotope relative to others.
  • The difference in mass between U-235 and U-238 allows the isotopes to be separated and makes it possible to increase or “enrich” the percentage of U-235.
  • Typical methods for enrichment include: gaseous diffusion, electromagnetic separation, aerodynamic processes, laser enrichment and centrifuge separation.

Background:
Efforts to prevent Iranian nuclear enrichment programme:
  • Since 2003, various Western nations have been negotiating with Iran over its nuclear policy.
  • They wanted Iran to agree to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and suspend its nuclear enrichment program (that can be used in nuclear weapons), to prevent a nuclear arms race in the middle-east.
  • In 2006, after the IAEA voted to refer Iran to the United Nations and Iran revealed that is it is enriching uranium, the P5+1, made up of the United States, China, Russia, Britain, Germany and France, was created.
  • P5+1 proposed a framework for an agreement aimed at stopping Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, which was rejected by Iran.
  • From 2006-2010, the United Nations, United States and the European Union imposed various sanctions against Iran, that were expanded over time, touching on trade, energy, financial services, transport, visa bans and asset freezes.
The 2015 JCPOA deal:
  • In 2015, the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China.
  • Under the deal, Iran had agreed to put various restrictions on its nuclear program in return for relief from the US and other economic sanctions.
  • In response, various economic sanctions on Iran were removed. The economic sanctions had kept Iran away from international banking and the global oil trade.
  • Uranium Enrichment under the JCPOA Deal
    • Under the nuclear deal, Iran is only permitted to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU), which has a 3-4% concentration of U-235, and can be used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants.
    • Weapons-grade uranium is 90% enriched or more.
    • The deal also restricted Iran to stockpiling no more than 300 kg of the low-enriched uranium.

US withdrawal from JCPOA:
  • However, in 2018, the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed economic sanctions on Iran it had lifted earlier. The US claimed the deal did not account for the Iran’s ballistic missile programme and Iran’s role in conflicts in Yemen and Syria.
    • The sanctions penalize buyers of Iranian oil, along with blacklisting various Iranian banks, ships, Iran’s national airline and more than 65 Iranian aircraft.
  • The other parties to the 2015 JCPOA deal – Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – were not in favour of US unilaterally imposing sanctions.

US actions against Iran:
  • In 2019, US also blacklisted the elite Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as “terrorists”.
  • In early 2020, the US assassinated one of the Iran’s top officials, General Qassem Soleimani.

Iran ending its commitments under the JCPOA deal:
  • Iran refused and saw the value of its currency plummet and its inflation rate soar as the sanctions took effect.
  • When the sanctions were tightened in May 2019, Iran stopped abiding by some commitments in the deal.
  • Iran also retaliated to US military actions by bombing oil tankers, shooting down a US military drone, and slowly ramping up its missile activities, among other moves.
  • After Soleimani’s assassination, Iran declared that it would no longer observe limitations on uranium enrichment, stockpiles of enriched uranium or nuclear research and development.

Also Read: Iran curbs won’t hit Chabahar

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