Enrichment ability increasing in Iran

U.N. experts can't confirm that Tehran's nuclear program is peaceful, report says

November 15, 2006|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SANCERRE, FRANCE -- Iran has slowly but steadily increased its ability to enrich uranium despite international calls to halt its nuclear activities, experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency say in a report released yesterday.

The report, which became public in advance of a meeting next week by the U.N. watchdog agency's board of governors, emphasized that Iran's failure to answer questions about its nuclear activities made it impossible for the IAEA "to confirm the peaceful nature of Iran's program."

The report noted that traces of plutonium had been found on storage barrels at a waste facility, in addition to a previously reported finding of highly enriched uranium at the site.

Iran had kept its nuclear program secret for more than 18 years, until 2002, and many questions remain about whether its effort had, or continues to have, a military goal. Highly enriched uranium is the fissile material used to make a nuclear bomb.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said yesterday at a news conference in Tehran that there will be a "big celebration of Iran's full nuclearization in the current year." Iran's calendar year ends March 20.

Iran has said it would have 3,000 centrifuges, used to enrich uranium, operating by the end of the year. Ahmadinejad said yesterday that the goal is eventually to have 60,000. While that goal is possible, experts say, it would appear to require a drastic acceleration in Iran's program.

IAEA inspectors are reluctant to make predictions about the speed with which Iran might move ahead. Inspectors have had limited information about Iran's nuclear operations since Tehran reduced access to nuclear facilities early this year. The action came after the nuclear agency's board reported Iran to the United Nations Security Council.

Information on how many centrifuges are breaking would enable the nuclear agency to gauge how well the groups of linked centrifuges, known as cascades, are working and to better assess Iran's progress. Similarly the inspectors no longer have access to sites where Iran is fabricating or assembling the centrifuges, making it difficult to judge the accuracy of the claim that it is poised to set up 3,000 centrifuges.

The Bush administration and several European governments fear that Iran intends to use the enriched uranium to build bombs, despite Tehran's insistence that the material would fuel civilian nuclear power stations.

The report and Ahmadinejad's comments came amid debate among permanent Security Council members about which sanctions to apply to Iran to pressure the Islamic state into halting its enrichment activities. The European Union and the United States have backed a Security Council resolution that would prevent nuclear technology and related missile technology from being sold to Iran and limit visas for Iranian officials and students.

Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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