Thursday, December 03, 2009

Iran President Says Nuclear Enrichment Will Grow

By WILLIAM J. BROAD The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Wednesday that his nation would produce a higher grade of nuclear fuel on its own, escalating its war of words with the international community over its disputed nuclear program. His declaration continued a daily drumbeat of defiant proclamations from the Iranian leadership, which has vowed to expand its nuclear plants and hone its capability to enrich uranium despite strong warnings from the United Nations and Western powers that its program violates its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. “I declare here that, with the grace of God, the Iranian nation will produce 20 percent fuel and anything it needs itself,” Mr. Ahmadinejad told a cheering crowd in the central city of Isfahan, according to the Reuters news agency. Iran claims it needs a relatively high grade of nuclear fuel for civilian uses. But many in the West suspect its program is aimed ultimately at producing atom bombs. Uranium enriched to 20 percent can fuel a reactor and also marks the dividing line between what nuclear specialists call low-enriched uranium and high-enriched uranium. At the 20 percent level, Iran could, in theory, make an extremely crude and heavy nuclear weapon. The bigger threat would be that its enrichment could quickly accelerate from there to the much higher grade of fuel — enriched to 90 percent — typically used in modern nuclear warheads. Iran has said the 20 percent uranium is needed for a reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes. The country denies that it has any intention of developing nuclear arms, and Mr. Ahmadinejad has not threatened to turn its current stockpile of enriched uranium into bomb fuel. But his new declaration came just days after Iran angrily rejected demands that it shut down a once secret enrichment plant, and instead vowed to build 10 more. Mr. Ahmadinejad also announced that his cabinet would study what Iran needed to enrich its existing stockpile of uranium. In the past two months, the United States and its Western allies have offered to supply uranium enriched to 20 percent for the Tehran medical reactor, but only if Iran shipped some of its current reported stockpile of low-enriched uranium out of the country. The deal, brokered by the United Nations with support from the United States, sought to defuse tensions surrounding Iran’s program. Iran, with uranium enriched to 20 percent in the form of fuel rods for a reactor, would then presumably have no cause for enriching more uranium on its own. But Iran effectively rejected the offer, calling it a ploy by the West to confiscate its existing stockpile. “We asked for 20 percent enriched uranium fuel, which, according to the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency, they can provide us with,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said Wednesday, according to Iran’s PressTV. “However, they refused to do so.” A weapon made with 20 percent enriched fuel would be unwieldy compared with one made from 80 percent or 90 percent enriched fuel — what experts often call weapons grade. “It’s hundreds of kilograms that would be needed, versus a few tens of kilograms at 90 percent,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation. “At 20 percent, a weapon would be doable but impractical” because of its gargantuan size. He called it “a monster.” Thomas B. Cochran, a senior scientist in the nuclear program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group in Washington that tracks atomic arsenals, said Iran would need more uranium that it currently possesses to make a bomb whose fuel was enriched to only 20 percent. “That’s not the risk,” he said. “The risk is that it would be relatively easy for Iran to further enrich that material to something that is usable in a nuclear weapon.” For Iran or any other country, the open production of highly enriched uranium would violate no treaties or safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. From its headquarters in Vienna, the agency monitors the globe for potential diversions of nuclear materials from civil to military programs. But in Iran’s case, the United Nations Security Council, starting in 2006, has demanded repeatedly that Iran cease the enrichment of uranium altogether — so continuing and accelerating the process toward a more concentrated form of uranium would stir apprehensions that Iran was positioning itself for the production of nuclear arms. In Vienna, a diplomat who works with the energy agency and closely monitors the Iranian program said the threat of the higher level of enrichment boded ill for a diplomatic solution to the impasse, despite the intrinsic difficulty of using such uranium to fuel a weapon. “They’re almost asking to be attacked,” said the diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “By definition, 20 percent is weapons-usable.” Mr. Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security said that Iran would need a month or two to prepare its sprawling enrichment plant at Natanz for the production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, and another month or two to make enough of the enriched material to supply the Tehran Research Reactor, a small plant that makes medical isotopes for treating many diseases. He added, however, that the Iranians, while showing the skills to achieve that high level of enrichment, had little of the manufacturing expertise needed to turn the enriched material into safe reactor fuel. “They don’t know how to do it,” Mr. Albright said, “which makes the whole situation more unnerving.”

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