Reuters: The U.N. nuclear watchdog is making an inventory of processed uranium in Iran amid concerns that inconsistencies in the tally could mean Tehran secretly shifted some uranium out of a nuclear facility, diplomats said.
By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA – The U.N. nuclear watchdog is making an inventory of processed uranium in Iran amid concerns that inconsistencies in the tally could mean Tehran secretly shifted some uranium out of a nuclear facility, diplomats said.
One intelligence agency has accused Iran of spiriting an unspecified quantity of processed uranium, which could be processed further and enriched for weapons purposes, out of the Isfahan uranium conversion facility to an unknown location.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog declined to comment and no diplomats in Vienna confirmed the allegation. However, two European diplomats accredited with the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the charge was credible.
A senior official at another spy agency also said it was possible but doubted more than a small amount could have been moved out of Isfahan under the nose of the U.N., which has sealed the facility and installed monitoring cameras there.
Many tonnes of processed uranium would be needed for a bomb.
But diverting such material would violate Iran’s pledge to freeze all sensitive nuclear work, as well as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), EU diplomats said. It would also bolster Washington’s argument that Iran has a secret bomb programme alongside its atomic power plans.
Tehran denies wanting weapons and insists its nuclear ambitions are limited to the peaceful generation of electricity.
An IAEA team arrived in Iran at the beginning of the month to make an inventory of 37 tonnes of raw “yellowcake” uranium that was processed at the Isfahan facility recently, said diplomats close to the IAEA, who declined to be named.
Several diplomats said the IAEA had told them to expect inconsistencies in the inventory, inconsistencies that could indicate Iran has either lost some uranium or shifted it out of the plant.
A non-U.S. diplomat, citing intelligence gathered by his country, said Iran had recently moved some uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) out of the facility to an unknown location without U.N. inspectors’ knowledge.
“We have evidence that significant amounts of UF4 have been diverted from Isfahan,” the diplomat said.
He said the UF4, which could be processed further and enriched for use in weapons, may be intended for a secret cache of uranium but could also indicate the existence of an undeclared conversion plant and possibly an enrichment facility elsewhere in the country. He gave no further details. Iranian officials were not immediately available for comment.
Isfahan has been a focus of recent attention because Iran built tunnels under it to protect equipment in case of a U.S. or Israeli military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The Isfahan facility is one of several that Iran has allowed the IAEA to seal shut and monitor as part of a voluntary freeze of activities that could lead to the production of weapons-grade nuclear material.
One of the problems with an inventory of the Isfahan facility is its large size and the massive quantities of uranium that have been fed into it recently.
The amount that comes out does not match what went in because of the chemistry of the conversion process and varies according to the efficiency of the machinery. Some of the material is lost as waste in the process, experts say.
“It (the inventory) is a messy business,” a European diplomat said.
MARGIN OF ERROR
Another EU diplomat said IAEA rules did not require countries to account for all converted uranium, though suspicions about Iran’s atomic plans made it a special case.
“There is a margin of error, a percentage that you don’t have to account for because it is lost in waste. But if you were Iran, you’d want to account for every drop or else you’d be vulnerable to these kinds of allegations,” he said.
David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and head of a U.S.-based think-tank, said many tonnes of UF4 would be needed to make bomb fuel. While he doubted Iran could move so much out of Isfahan, he said the monitoring there was not perfect.
“Is the safeguarding of this facility sufficient? No, it’s not. But the key question is how much do you need to make a bomb. Even if you’re missing a tonne, it’s not like they’re going to be able to make a bomb with it,” Albright said.
But the allegation of illicit activity is a serious one and comes just ahead of a new round of talks later this month between the EU3 — France, Britain, Germany — and Iran, aimed at resolving the standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme.