Iran’s formal notification on Monday to a United Nations nuclear watchdog that it will begin producing higher-grade enriched uranium marks a new and potentially dangerous turn in Tehran’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear ambitions.
Iran couched its announcement in terms of a pressing need for fuel at a 41-year-old, U.S.-built research reactor that produces medical isotopes for an estimated 850,000 kidney, heart and cancer patients.
But in reality it means that Iran will be a significant step closer to possessing the raw material needed to build a nuclear bomb.
Indeed, Iran does not have the expertise to build the specialized fuel rods needed for the research reactor — only France and Argentina are expert at it — so the main consequence of Iran’s decision appears to be moving up the enrichment ladder.
If Iran tried to fuel the reactor itself, absent international assistance, it would be risky to the reactor and for public safety, according to David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
Iranian officials have acknowledged the difficulty of using homemade fuel.
Meanwhile, enriching uranium under the guise of medical needs will get Tehran much closer to possessing weapons-grade material. Iran insists it has no interest in nuclear weapons. It is unclear how quickly Iran can begin the work — and whether it would convert only enough material to run the research reactor for a year.
A year’s worth of fuel would not be enough for a weapon, but if Iran converted all of its nearly 4,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium, it would have enough material for a bomb.
U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair told the House intelligence committee last week that “Iran has the scientific, the technical, the industrial capacity to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in the next few years and eventually to produce a nuclear weapon. The central issue is a political decision by Iran to do so.”
In Vienna on Monday, IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor confirmed that the agency had received a formal note from Iran announcing plans to begin enriching uranium up to 20 per cent.
"In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post". For additional content please visit www. washingtonpost.com"