Iran nuclear program advancing, U.N. agency says
Iran has significantly boosted its supply and output of reactor-grade nuclear material, according to a quarterly report issued Friday by the United Nations’ arms control division.
Meanwhile, in Syria, international inspectors reported finding unexplained particles of modified uranium at a lab in Damascus, far from an alleged nuclear site.
The inspectors said they discovered the artificially modified uranium particles in samples taken last year from a facility in the Syrian capital called the Miniature Neutron Source Reactor. The report disclosed few other details about the discovery or Syria’s response to the agency’s request for an explanation.
The uranium particles found at the facility “are of a type not included in Syria’s declared inventory of nuclear material,” the report says.
The reports by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, came a day after President Obama, during his visit to Cairo, called on Iran and other nations to avoid a Middle East nuclear arms race and strive for a world without atomic weapons.
The U.S. and its Western allies allege that Iran is violating the spirit of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by using a civilian nuclear energy program as a cover for developing the means to produce atomic weapons, a charge Iranian leaders deny.
Iran’s nuclear research program has also become a domestic campaign issue ahead of next Friday’s presidential elections here. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has touted the program as a point of national pride, even adding the symbol of the atom to his campaign posters, while his challengers say he has isolated Iran with his tough talk and uncompromising stance.
Arms control experts say the IAEA report on Iran suggests that Tehran continues to master the enrichment process without running into any major glitches.
“Iran’s nuclear program comes across to me as if Iran has its head down and burrowing forward,” said Jacqueline Shire, an arms control expert at the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank. “It’s not stopping. It’s not looking up. It’s not taking the temperature of the political situation. They’re just bearing ahead.”
The dryly worded reports, delivered to the governing board of the agency and obtained by The Times, say Iran has increased its supply of low-enriched uranium during the last three months by 30%, to nearly 3,000 pounds, and is now feeding uranium gas into about 5,000 high-speed centrifuges, up 25% since February, the time of the last report. It also has an additional 2,000 centrifuges spinning in preparation for being fed uranium gas to turn into nuclear material.
Scientists say 3,000 pounds of low-enriched, or reactor-grade, uranium of the type Iran has would be more than enough to build a single nuclear weapon if Iran were to boot out international inspectors, renege on treaty obligations and further refine its supplies.
Shire estimates that Iran is producing about 6 pounds of low-enriched uranium a day.
The U.N. Security Council has passed several resolutions calling on Iran to stop enriching uranium. Friday’s report says the agency has made no progress in resolving questions raised by Western intelligence agencies about alleged tests and studies that suggested Iran was explicitly pursuing nuclear weapons until 2003. Iran insists that the evidence, which it has not been allowed to see, is forged.
The agency report also says that Iran continues to deny it access to the heavy-water reactor near the west-central city of Arak and has not yet provided it with design information for a planned nuclear power plant near the southwestern Iranian town of Darkhovin. Iran says that under its treaty obligations, it need not provide such information until just before it introduces nuclear material to a site.
So rapidly is Iran’s nuclear program growing that the agency said it has begun talks to upgrade its “containment and surveillance” systems. The agency often uses mounted cameras to keep track of nuclear material stockpiles around the world. It has long wanted to install remotely monitored cameras in Iran’s uranium- enrichment facility in the central city of Natanz, so that it doesn’t incur the cost and hassle of sending inspectors to Iran to change the film.
In Syria, international inspectors previously have reportedly found modified uranium particles in soil samples taken at Dair Alzour, the site of a building bombed by Israeli aircraft in 2007. Syria insisted that the site, about 260 miles northeast of Damascus, was an unused military facility, whereas U.S. intelligence officials alleged it was the site of a future plutonium reactor. Syria suggested that the uranium particles at the site came from Israeli munitions, an explanation the agency found implausible.