Reuters: Iran began a fresh phase of uranium enrichment this week just as world powers presented it with incentives to halt nuclear fuel work, according to a U.N. nuclear watchdog agency report obtained by Reuters on Thursday. By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran began a fresh phase of uranium enrichment this week just as world powers presented it with incentives to halt nuclear fuel work, according to a U.N. nuclear watchdog agency report obtained by Reuters on Thursday.
The report, emailed to the 35 states on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s governing board ahead of a meeting starting on Monday, also said Iran was pressing ahead with installing more cascades of centrifuge enrichment machines.
Authored by IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei, the report said Iran resumed feeding “UF6” uranium gas into its pilot 164-centrifuge cascade in Natanz on Tuesday after a pause of several weeks to do test runs of the machines without UF6.
Tuesday was the day European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana visited Tehran to hand over a packet of economic, technological and security incentives for Iran to suspend work which could eventually produce atomic bombs.
The Islamic Republic says the goal of its nuclear fuel program is solely electricity generation for its economy. The West suspects Iran, the world’s No. 4 oil producer, of creating a smokescreen for atomic bombmaking.
In April, Iran appeared to defeat a Western bid to deny it enrichment technology when, for the first time, it purified a small amount of uranium at Natanz for use as power plant fuel.
A Western intelligence source told Reuters hours before the IAEA report that Iran stopped feeding gas into its pilot cascade later in April because of technical glitches, but then resolved them, allowing enrichment work to resume on Tuesday.
“This underlines the fact that the temporary halt was technical in nature. It’s a continuation of Iranian policy to profit from all worlds, dialogue to gain time while continuing to strive for an atomic bomb,” the source said.
ElBaradei’s report said Iran had also launched a new drive on Tuesday to transform raw uranium ore into UF6 gas at its Isfahan conversion plant. As of April, Iran has stockpiled 118 tonnes of UF6 at Isfahan.
A senior U.N. official familiar with ElBaradei’s report said a few of the 164 centrifuges in the Natanz cascade had crashed since April but Iranian scientists apparently isolated the problem and kept the rest of the network running.
But he said the pause in enrichment could also have been prompted by a wish “not to rock the boat” at a crunch time in Iran’s stand-off with six world powers, who agreed last week to consider sanctions if Tehran rebuffed the incentives package.
Iran has said it will seriously consider the overture but it has given no sign of backing away from its insistence on an indigenous nuclear fuel-enrichment program.
Since the end of April, Iran had also been test-feeding UF6 gas into two separated centrifuges, the report said. It was unclear whether these were the embryos for two more cascades of 164 interconnected centrifuges it is building at Natanz.
With 164 centrifuges, it would take more than 10 years to produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU), the fissile core of an atomic bomb. But Iran has said it aims to have 3,000 centrifuges installed by early 2007, enough to yield highly enriched uranium for a warhead within a year if spinning nonstop.
The report confirmed word from diplomats that new traces of hihgly enriched uranium had turned up on equipment that may have come from Lavizan-Shian, a former military site razed by Iran in 2004 before IAEA inspectors could get there to examine it.
Iran has said the traces, detected earlier at some other sites in Iran, originated on equipment imported from Pakistan, which has nuclear arms, and did not come from Iranian activity.
Inspectors would need to take samples of further equipment and interview relevant officials to pinpoint the particles’ origin of the highly enriched uranium but Iran continued to ignore requests for access, the senior U.N. official said.
ElBaradei’s report said Tehran in general was still stonewalling IAEA probes into military links with nuclear fuel work, echoing earlier assessments.
Vienna diplomats familiar with IAEA inquiries say Iran is withholding answers as bargaining chips for any talks with U.N. Security Council powers on its nuclear goals.