UNITED NATIONS -- United Nations nuclear inspectors now in Iraq are hunting for a secret nuclear reactor capable of producing enough plutonium to make two or more bombs a year, United Nations officials and European diplomats say.
For the first time, the U.N. inspectors searching for President Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction have described intelligence suggesting that Iraq has a previously unknown reactor capable of turning out plutonium.
So far the main thrust of their search has been toward discovering evidence of Iraq's attempt to make highly enriched uranium explosive and to design a weapon capable of using it.
The significance of the new intelligence, experts say, is that Mr. Hussein was trying to build an atomic bomb using plutonium explosive as well.
While the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima used uranium as its explosive, the one that destroyed Nagasaki used plutonium, which is also used in most nuclear weapons now.
"We have reason to believe Iraq may have an undeclared plutonium reactor but our inspectors have found nothing significant yet," Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish head of the special United Nations commission, said yesterday.
"All the specialists believe there is a reactor somewhere there," a European diplomat said.
The current search, the 10th the United Nations has conducted, has yielded nothing so far and the team is to leave Iraq today. On Tuesday, the team searched a prison in the northern city of Mosul but again drew a blank.
However, the intelligence, much of it from France, suggesting that Iraq has such a reactor has encouraged the United States, France and Britain to consider asking the U.N. Security Council to issue a new ultimatum to Mr. Hussein ordering him to cooperate with their efforts to remove his weapons of mass destruction, diplomats say.
These three countries, together with the other two permanent Council members, Russia and China, are discussing a possible new Security Council resolution or statement that would address several of their current disputes with Baghdad, according to diplomats.
These include Mr. Hussein's economic blockade against dissident Kurds in the north, trade-sanction violations, the failure of Iraq to account for hundreds of missing Kuwaitis, Iraq's refusal to sell oil under United Nations guidelines to pay for food imports, and Mr. Hussein's refusal to cooperate with the Security Council on the weapons issue.