U.N. Finds Uranium in Iran Enriched to Higher Level (NY) TIMES) By WILLIAM J. BROAD 05/26/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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International atomic inspectors in Iran have detected traces of
uranium enriched to levels of purity higher than the Iranians have
previously disclosed, according to a new report on Tehran’s nuclear
program made public on Friday.
The report, by the International Atomic Energy Agency, an arm of the
United Nations based in Vienna, said its inspectors had taken
environmental samples at a uranium-enrichment plant in a mountain
bunker and discovered purities up to 27 percent.
While the report suggests that the finding could be an innocuous
aberration, it is potentially significant because it moves Iran’s
uranium enrichment closer to bomb-grade purity, even as world powers
are in the midst of intensive negotiations with Tehran to go in the
The report said Iran had sought to explain the spike, found in
February at its once-secret Fordo enrichment plant near the holy city
of Qum, as possibly resulting from “technical reasons beyond the
operator’s control.” But the report also said inspectors were doing
Diplomats and nuclear experts said the rise appeared in fact to
reflect honest technical missteps rather than evidence that Iran had
embarked on secret enrichments at higher purities.
“It’s definitely embarrassing but not nefarious,” David Albright,
president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a
Washington research group that tracks the Iranian nuclear program,
said in an interview.
A senior Obama administration official agreed that “the most likely
explanation” for the discovery was technical. If the energy agency
had found uranium enriched to 30 percent or 60 percent, the official
said, it would be greater cause for concern.
The report, by the agency’s director general, Yukiya Amano, was one
of his quarterly briefings to its board and the United Nations
Security Council, which has placed sanctions on Iran four times for
its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment.
The West suspects that Iran wants to amass the uranium for the
capability to build atomic bombs, while Iran insists it wants only to
fuel civilian reactors. The standoff has gone on for a decade, with
the geopolitics and technical issues ever more complex.
The disclosure of uranium particles enriched up to 27 percent came
less than a day after Iran and a group of six world powers ended a
round of difficult talks in Baghdad on Iran’s nuclear program. While
diplomats reported no substantive progress, both sides agreed to meet
again in Moscow next month.
Mr. Amano’s quarterly report said that the atomic agency was
assessing Iran’s explanation for the enrichment spike and that
inspectors earlier this month had taken “further environmental
samples from the same location where the particles in question had
In Vienna, a diplomat, speaking about the enrichment increase on the
condition of anonymity, said that “there’s a decent chance that it’s
an operator error.”
Until now, the highest reported level of uranium enrichment by the
Iranians has been 20 percent. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty
makes no restrictions on levels of uranium enrichment, only barring
nations from turning their civilian efforts to military ends.
In Iran’s case, the United Nations sanctions and the rising global
concern have been prompted by evidence that Iran has pursued the
making of nuclear arms despite its denials and a decree by the
supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that such weapons are
forbidden under Islam.
Uranium fuel for most reactors is enriched to around 4 percent
purity. Two years ago, Iran began producing uranium enriched to 20
percent, saying it was for a research reactor in Tehran.
Mr. Amano’s quarterly report documented that Iran was indeed turning
some of its growing stockpile of 20 percent uranium into fuel for the
Still, major questions remain about the fate of Iran’s stockpile.
Twenty percent enrichment is a short technical step from 90 percent,
the purity needed to make an atomic bomb. The quarterly report also
said the atomic agency had gathered information that “further
corroborates” its analysis that Iran might have performed experiments
related to the design of nuclear arms at Parchin, a sprawling
military complex 20 miles southeast of Tehran. Rick Gladstone
contributed reporting from New York, and Mark Landler from
Washington. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 05/26/12)
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