New York Times: In their first appraisal of Iran’s nuclear program since President Obama took office, atomic inspectors have found that Iran recently understated by a third how much uranium it has enriched, United Nations officials said Thursday.
The New York Times
By WILLIAM J. BROAD and DAVID E. SANGER
Published: February 20, 2009
In their first appraisal of Iran’s nuclear program since President Obama took office, atomic inspectors have found that Iran recently understated by a third how much uranium it has enriched, United Nations officials said Thursday.
The officials also declared for the first time that the amount of uranium that Tehran had now amassed — more than a ton — was sufficient, with added purification, to make an atom bomb.
In a report issued in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had discovered an additional 460 pounds of low-enriched uranium, a third more than Iran had previously disclosed. The agency made the find during its annual physical inventory of nuclear materials at Iran’s sprawling desert enrichment plant at Natanz.
Independent nuclear weapons experts expressed surprise at the disclosure and criticized the atomic inspectors for making independent checks on Iran’s progress only once a year.
“It’s worse than we thought,” Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said in an interview. “It’s alarming that the actual production was underreported by a third.”
The political impact of the report, while hard to measure, could be significant for the Obama administration. Mr. Obama has said that he wants to open direct talks with Iran about its nuclear program. But starting that process could take months, and the report suggests that Iran is moving ahead briskly with its uranium enrichment.
“You have enough atoms” to make a nuclear bomb, a senior United Nations official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s diplomatic sensitivity, told reporters on Thursday. His remarks confirmed estimates that private nuclear analysts made late last year. But the official noted that the material would have to undergo further enrichment if it was to be used as fuel for a bomb and that atomic inspectors had found no signs that Iran was making such preparations.
On Thursday evening, an Obama administration official who had reviewed the new report said, “There is a steady timeline of improvement, especially in terms of mastering the efficiency of the centrifuges,” meaning that Iran has been able to increase its output of enriched uranium.
The official acknowledged that there were longstanding suspicions that Iran could have additional uranium enrichment sites that the inspectors had not seen or heard about. “Everyone’s nervous and worried about the possibility of Iran pursuing a clandestine capability,” he said.
The disclosure of the unaccounted third came in the atomic agency’s quarterly report to its board, which was made public on Thursday. The report noted that Iran had now produced a total of 1,010 kilograms — or 2,227 pounds — of low-enriched uranium.
The discrepancy came to light when the report noted that the new total came from the addition of 171 kilograms of new production to 839 kilograms of old production. But the agency had previously reported the old production as 630 kilograms.
So the Iranians had actually made far more uranium than previously disclosed — 209 kilograms more, an increase of a third. That amounts to a little more than 460 pounds.
The United Nations’ officials explained the discrepancy as resulting from Iran’s estimates versus careful measurement. They called the inconsistency reasonable for a new enrichment plant.
The officials dismissed suggestions that the discrepancy meant that Iran could smuggle enriched uranium out of the Natanz plant for processing at a secret location. “We’re sure that no material could have left the facility without us knowing,” the senior United Nations official said. But he admitted that the inspection teams do their own inventory just once a year. “It’s only at that moment,” he said, “that we have our own independent data.”
The report also gave updated figures for Iran’s use of centrifuges — the machines that spin incredibly fast to enrich uranium into nuclear fuel. At Natanz, it said, Iran is feeding uranium into about 4,000 centrifuges and has 1,600 more in the wings, for a total of 5,600. That compares with 3,800 working centrifuges listed in the agency’s November report.
In Paris earlier this week, the head of the United Nations nuclear agency, Mohammad ElBaradei, said Iran appeared to have made “a political decision” to do less enrichment than it physically could. The Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iran for failing to suspend enrichment, which can be used to make fuel for nuclear reactors or bombs. While Iran insists that its efforts are entirely peaceful, the United States and other Western nations see the enrichment as a bid for atom bombs.
In a separate report to its board, the atomic agency said it had analyzed uranium particles found at a Syrian facility that Israel had bombed in 2007 and found “a low probability” that the tiny specks came from Israeli bombs, as Syria has insisted. Uranium, heavier than lead, is sometimes used in arms meant to destroy hardened targets.
But the report said the shape and composition of the particles “are all inconsistent with what would be expected from the use of uranium-based munitions.” The United States has charged that the facility was a reactor that Syria could have used to make fuel for nuclear arms.