From the archives: Iran touts atomic gains during annual National Day of Nuclear Technology

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center front, tours the factory in Esfahan that will produce uranium fuel pellets for use at the Arak research reactor.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center front, tours the factory in Esfahan that will produce uranium fuel pellets for use at the Arak research reactor.
(Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Iran announced fresh advances Thursday in its steady drive to master nuclear technology, trumpeting two new devices to enrich uranium and inaugurating a plant to produce fuel pellets for a heavy-water reactor.

State television broadcast a patriotic three-minute music video called “Fruits of Science” heralding technological achievements during the annual National Day of Nuclear Technology celebrations marking the date in 2006 when Iran produced its first batch of enriched uranium.

“We are witness to very important nuclear achievements,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Iranian officials and foreign guests in Esfahan for the launch of the nuclear fuel production plant, which was broadcast on state television.

Iran’s nuclear authorities “have announced that the various cycles of nuclear fuel management are in our grasp in a comprehensive and domestically produced way,” Ahmadinejad said.

Also at the event, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said the country now has “around 7,000" centrifuges installed at its Natanz facility, a significant jump from the 5,600 the International Atomic Energy Agency cited in a February report. Iranian officials also announced the introduction of two new types of centrifuges that enrich uranium faster than the current models.

“This shows Iran’s unique progress in line with the most up-to-date technology in the world,” Gholamreza Aghazadeh said.

The West suspects that Iran’s program is meant to eventually produce weapons, but Tehran insists that it is meant to expand the country’s energy supply. The United Nations Security Council has called on Iran to stop producing nuclear material with the potential for use in weapons.

Iran’s buildup of nuclear technology infrastructure, without explicitly pursuing weapons, keeps its unnerved regional rivals and the West guessing about its capabilities and intentions, a strategy that some analysts say could serve as a deterrent to foreign military action.

But experts say Iran’s plan could backfire if international inspectors accuse it of violating the Nonproliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory.

“If they’re trying to do everything they’re doing entirely legally, when they take steps that cross the boundary they’re going to really undermine their own argument,” said Peter Crail, an analyst at the Washington-based Arms Control Assn.

The Obama administration reacted coolly to the latest news.

“Iran is entitled to have a civilian nuclear program, but with that program come responsibilities,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters in Washington. “If Iran means very seriously that its program is for civilian purposes only, then why doesn’t it comply with the basic things that the international community has asked Iran to do?”

Western scientists described the announcements as incremental and long-anticipated. The new high-speed centrifuges could hasten Iran’s expansion of its low-enriched uranium supply, which could be used for a bomb only if Iran were to take the extreme step of kicking out inspectors, withdrawing from treaty obligations and beginning further enrichment. Theoretically Iran already has enough low-enriched uranium to produce the weapons-grade uranium necessary for a single nuclear bomb, arms control experts say.

The uranium fuel pellet factory is meant to eventually produce 10 tons of fuel rods a year for the research reactor in Arak and others, including the Russian-built reactor at Bushehr, nuclear scientist Vajihollah Asadi said at the Esfahan event.

Turning its low-enriched uranium into reactor fuel could reassure the West that Iran has no intention of further refining its stockpile. But plutonium extracted from the spent fuel from Arak could be used for a bomb. That’s only if Iran were to build a reprocessing facility, which it says it won’t do.

“They don’t have one and say they’re not interested in one,” said Paul Kerr, an arms control expert at the Congressional Research Service. “The reactor is under safeguard. They can’t [create weapons-grade plutonium] without getting caught.”

Building a plutonium nuclear warhead is also more technically challenging than a uranium bomb.

The Obama administration this week announced that it would begin regularly joining the table at nuclear talks involving Iran and European nations, Russia and China. The Bush administration had avoided the negotiations until sending an observer to a session last year.

Iran’s nuclear achievements have increasingly become wedded to its national identity and official ideology, making it harder for the leadership to back down. The music video clip broadcast Thursday spliced scenes of nuclear installations and scientists in laboratories and demonstrations of Iranians holding up portraits of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the Islamic Revolution that put the clergy in power.

“The name of Iran and Iranian nation is shining like the sun, in the world of wisdom and knowledge,” vocalist Nima Masiha sang. “If science and wisdom go together, they can elevate the status of mankind.”


Mostaghim is a special correspondent.