AFP: Iran on Wednesday started a new round of converting uranium ore into the feedstock gas for making enriched uranium, a move likely to complicate diplomacy over Iran’s disputed nuclear program, diplomats said. by Michael Adler
VIENNA, Nov 16 (AFP) – Iran on Wednesday started a new round of converting uranium ore into the feedstock gas for making enriched uranium, a move likely to complicate diplomacy over Iran’s disputed nuclear program, diplomats said.
UN inspectors “are reporting that the first drums of new uranium ore were fed into the process at the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan this morning,” a diplomat who asked not to be identified told AFP.
Enriched uranium can be used as fuel for a civilian nuclear reactor or as atom bomb material.
The conversion into the precursor gas is a second round after Iran already processed 37 tonnes of ore.
Diplomats said the amount of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas the Iranians would have after processing what is likely to be 50 tonnes this time would be enough to make highly enriched uranium for up to 10 atomic bombs.
A senior European diplomat told AFP: “It’s not good news, no, not at all.”
Asked why, the diplomat said: “Because people were trying to arrange for new talks and now it’s more difficult.”
Iran says its nuclear program is a peaceful effort to generate electricity but the United States charges that Tehran is using this to hide secret work on developing atomic weapons.
Talks with the European Union aimed at securing guarantees that Iran is not secretly developing nuclear weapons collapsed in August when Iran restarted conversion, nine months after suspending the work as a confidence-building measure.
On September 24, the Vienna-based UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency passed a resolution calling on Iran to cease all nuclear fuel work, including conversion, and to cooperate fully in an IAEA investigation into its atomic program.
Since then Russia has been lobbying for a compromise by offering to allow Iran to convert uranium but to do the actual enrichment work in Russia. Iran has refused to give up the right to enrich uranium on its soil, however.
A diplomat said Iran told Igor Ivanov, head of Russia’s Security Council, last weekend that it would never agree to giving up on enrichment on its soil but that it was still open to talks.
The Iranians told Ivanov that they would discuss the Russian idea if other nations would consider investing in the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, an idea proposed by hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations in September to prove its nuclear intentions were peaceful.
At stake is whether IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei should make an 11th-hour trip to Iran to try to revive EU-Iran talks, ahead of an IAEA meeting November 24-25 on whether to send the Iranian dossier to the UN Security Council.
Diplomats said ElBaradei would probably not go if he could not clinch a deal, although one diplomat said the IAEA chief was still willing to travel to Tehran as a mediator for EU negotiators Britain, Germany and France.
A second diplomat confirmed that Iran had Wednesday started new conversion work, saying the Iranians had changed the date they would do this several times since telling the IAEA last month that they would be converting 150 drums of uranium ore, which is also called yellowcake.
Diplomats said reports that the UF6 is too contaminated to be put into the centrifuges that make enriched uranium were wrong.
“The current batch is good enough for a crash nuclear weapons program, if Iran doesn’t mind ruining a lot of centrifuges along the way,” a Western diplomat said.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said that while UF6 could be used to enrich uranium, “it will corrode centrifuge machines over time.”
“But many of the centrifuge machines will crash upon start-up anyway, so contamination may be the least of Iran’s worries.”
A non-Western diplomat said 50 tonnes was considered a very large quantity.
“The feeding of such a quantity in the system clearly indicates that Iran believes in its capability to produce UF6 of good quality in the conversion process,” the source said.