Iran Nuclear NewsHighly enriched uranium found at Iranian plant

Highly enriched uranium found at Iranian plant


New York Times: The global nuclear monitoring agency deepened suspicions on Thursday about Iran’s nuclear program, reporting that inspectors had discovered new traces of highly enriched uranium at an Iranian facility. The New York Times


VIENNA, Aug. 31 — The global nuclear monitoring agency deepened suspicions on Thursday about Iran’s nuclear program, reporting that inspectors had discovered new traces of highly enriched uranium at an Iranian facility.

Inspectors have found such uranium, which at extreme enrichment levels can fuel bombs, twice in the past. The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that at least some of those samples came from contaminated equipment that Iran had obtained from Pakistan.

But in this case, the nuclear fingerprint of the particles did not match the other samples, an official familiar with the inspections said, raising questions about their origin.

In a six-page report to the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, the agency withheld judgment about where the material came from and whether it could be linked to a secret nuclear program.

Iran says that its nuclear program is intended only for the production of energy, which would use uranium enriched at far lower levels than the sample described in the report.

As expected, the report confirmed that Iran had continued producing enriched uranium, but only on a small scale and at relatively low levels, at its vast Natanz facility.

Thursday was the deadline set by the Security Council for Iran to freeze its enrichment-related activities. Iran’s failure to comply means that it is vulnerable to further punitive action, perhaps economic and political penalties, either by the entire Council or a smaller group of countries led by the United States.

In a speech at the American Legion national convention in Salt Lake City, President Bush ratcheted up his warning to the Iranian leadership, saying that the war in Lebanon and Iran’s support for Hezbollah “made it clearer than ever that the world now faces a grave threat from the radical regime in Iran.”

He concluded by saying that while he was committed to a diplomatic solution to the confrontation with Iran, “There must be consequences for Iran’s defiance, and we must not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.”

The European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, are to meet in Europe next week in a final attempt to seek a way out of the impasse. Afterward, the major world powers will meet in Europe to discuss Iran’s case. But Russia and China are resisting sanctions and Iran has shrugged off all threats, vowing to continue its nuclear activities even as it seeks negotiations.

As in the past, the nuclear agency painted a confusing and incomplete picture of the state of Iran’s nuclear program, underscoring the limits of outside inspectors whose access to Iran’s nuclear sites was curtailed by Iran early this year.

On one hand, the report makes clear that, as the official familiar with the inspections said, “Inspectors have not uncovered any concrete proof that Iran’s nuclear program is of a military nature.”

On the other hand, the report captures the long pattern of confusion, stonewalling, partial disclosure of information and a minimum of cooperation under Iran’s international obligations to the agency and details new suspicious activities.

Since February, when the agency referred the Iran dossier to the Security Council, Iran has drastically reduced the access of the international inspectors. The decision has limited or blocked inspections of hundreds of the country’s atomic sites, programs and personnel; the result is more uncertainty and less information about Iran’s progress in mastering the basics of uranium and plutonium, the foundations for both producing electricity and building bombs.

Most noteworthy in the report was the discovery of particles of highly enriched uranium on a container at a waste storage facility at Karaj, not far from Tehran.

The particles were taken from the container for testing a year ago, but the agency obtained the result only a few weeks ago because of the limited capacity of its verification laboratory.

In late 2003, the discovery of traces of highly enriched uranium in Iran touched off international concern about the country’s nuclear intentions and raised questions about where the material had originated. Another find of the radioactive material earlier this year redoubled the sense of alarm.

But Thursday’s disclosure was different, diplomats said. “This is the first case with no known linkage,” said one European diplomat who could not be quoted by name because of diplomatic rules. “But we have to be careful because over time these things can be explained away, at least in theory.”

Robert Joseph, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, was cautious in talking about the new evidence, but said, “We need to be very concerned that Iran may well be undertaking experiments, and may be undertaking the construction of centrifuge machines, out of sight of I.A.E.A. inspectors.”

Highly enriched uranium, containing 80 percent or more of the rare uranium-235 isotope, is considered bomb grade and can be fashioned into the core of a nuclear weapon.

Iran says its atomic program is meant to enrich uranium to the low levels of up to 5 percent for the production of nuclear power, but the United States calls that effort a cover for the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal.

The agency has written to Iran asking for an explanation of the source of the highly enriched particles, but has not received a response.

The report did not specify the level of the particles or whether they were weapons-grade quality. The official who was discussing the report refused to be drawn into that discussion, suggesting that such a definition was meaningless. “You cannot say weapons-grade, but very high,” he said.

The report also concluded that Iran had continued to produce enriched uranium but on a modest scale, despite claims of various Iranian officials of plans to build and operate thousands of gas centrifuges on an industrial scale.

Indeed, Iran has built and operated only one 164-machine cascade or set of centrifuges, and other isolated machines.

Over the summer, the centrifuges did not produce enriched uranium continuously, but only for a few days and then often operated empty, the report said.

In addition, only a few kilograms of nuclear material was fed into the machines; only a small amount of uranium — tens of grams — was enriched, the official said.

“The qualitative and quantitative development of Iran’s enrichment program continues to be fairly limited,” the official said. He added, “From a technical point of view, we have not seen a very extensive experimentation with those machines.”

The program appears to be lagging behind Iran’s stated deadline to install 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz in the last quarter of this year.

The report documented Iran’s refusal last summer to allow inspectors into an underground part of the Natanz facility and to give inspectors multiple-entry one-year visas for easy access to the country. Iranian officials since have backed down.

The report also faulted Iran for once again failing to answer questions and provide documents and access on a wide range of issues, some of which have been outstanding for more than three years.

“There is a standstill” in resolving these issues, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of normal diplomatic rules. The agency, he added, is losing confidence that it can give the world assurances about the “completeness” of Iran’s program.

William J. Broad and David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington for this article.

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