By Francois Murphy and John Irish

VIENNA/PARIS, April 9 (Reuters) – The U.N. atomic watchdog on Friday flagged a new breach by Iran of its nuclear deal with major powers on the day those powers met to revive the agreement , a report by the agency seen by Reuters showed, likely raising tensions with Western powers.

The International Atomic Energy Agency avoids saying Iran has breached the deal. At the same time, it generally only issues such ad hoc reports to member states in the event of a breach. Two diplomats told Reuters what the report described amounted to a fresh breach.

The breach has to do with what counts officially towards Iran‘s stockpile of enriched uranium, a highly sensitive issue since that stockpile could be enriched further to weapons-grade material suitable for nuclear bombs if Iran chose to do so. It denies seeking such weapons and says its aims are entirely peaceful.

After the deal was reached in 2015 the parties to it defined what should count towards the stockpile, and excluded items such as scrap fuel plates with uranium enriched to near 20% fissile purity, which were deemed “unrecoverable.” Friday’s report, however, said Iran had recovered some of that material.

“On 7 April 2021, the Agency verified at the Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant at Esfahan that Iran had dissolved six unirradiated scrap fuel plates for the TRR (Tehran Research Reactor) containing 0.43 kg of uranium enriched up to 20% U-235,” the report said.

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“A uranyl nitrate solution was extracted and converted into ammonium uranyl carbonate,” the report said, adding that Iran aimed to process that further to produce molybdenum, which has many civilian uses including in medical imaging.

While the amount of enriched uranium extracted is small, it amounts to a fresh breach at a delicate stage, since Tehran and the United States are holding indirect talks in Vienna on how they could fully return to the deal.

After talks among the remaining parties to the deal wrapped up on Friday, France’s Foreign Ministry said a “positive” first week of negotiation should not be undermined by new Iranian provocations.

“In this context, it is all the more important that Iran refrain from any further violation of its nuclear commitments that could undermine the current dynamic,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll told reporters.

David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and a hawk on Iran, said the latest breach also raises questions about what major powers excluded from the enriched uranium stockpile.

“Looking back, exempting this near 20% enriched uranium scrap was probably not a good idea,” he said, explaining what scrap means in this case: “When enriched uranium is made into fuel plates, some does not get used, somewhat like batter for a cake.”

(Reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna and John Irish in Paris Writing by Francois Murphy Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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