Thu, Sep 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Iran defies UN by converting uranium

ENRICHMENT Despite calls by the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop such activities, Iran says it has started converting tonnes of uranium into nuclear fuel


Iran defied the UN on Tuesday by announcing that it had begun converting tonnes of uranium into the gas needed to turn the radioactive element into nuclear fuel. The world body's International Atomic Energy Agency called on Saturday for the country to suspend all such activities.

Iran's statement, made to reporters in Vienna by Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, put the country on a collision course with the US, which has lobbied vigorously for the agency to send Iran before the UN Security Council for its past breaches of the Nonproliferation Treaty.

"Some of the amount of the 37 tonnes has been used," Aghazadeh was quoted as saying, referring to a quantity of yellowcake, or uranium oxide, which Iran had earlier indicated it planned to convert into gas.

"The tests have been successful but these test have to be continued using the rest of the material," he said.

Aghazadeh, one of Iran's vice presidents, is attending a general conference of the Vienna-based atomic energy agency.

Washington is certain to use any failure by Iran to abide by the agency's latest requests, made in a resolution passed by its 35-nation board of governors on Saturday, to push for Security Council referral when the board meets again on Nov. 25.

Iran, as a signatory of the nonproliferation treaty, has the right to convert uranium into a gas and to concentrate the fissile 235 isotope in that gas with high-speed centrifuges, a process known as enrichment. But the UN agency has used the threat of Security Council intervention for the country's past failings to pressure it to voluntarily stop all of the steps leading to the production of enriched uranium.

Uranium with a high enough concentration of the uranium-235 isotope can be used to fuel a nuclear reactor, but the enrichment process can easily be extended to produce higher concentrations of the isotope necessary for a nuclear bomb.

Though Iran calls the 37 metric tonnes, or more than 40 tonnes, a test amount, experts say it will produce enough gas for enrichment into fissile material for several nuclear bombs. Iran argues that its uranium enrichment program is intended to produce low-enriched uranium for use in a nuclear power plant that it began building in the 1970s. But the US and other countries believe the program is part of an effort to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran has offered to accept any safeguards imposed by the UN agency to ensure its enrichment activities do not go beyond the 3.5 percent concentration of the uranium-235 isotope needed for its power plant.

But some US analysts warn that the international community has only a year or so left to stop the Iranian program from achieving self-sufficiency. After that, they warn, the country will have the means to create a nuclear arsenal without outside help, forever altering the Middle East balance of power.

The atomic energy agency is trying to force the country to voluntarily accept limits to its rights under the nonproliferation treaty without setting off an Iranian withdrawal from the accord.

Iran, however, says it is reluctant to accept such limits, arguing that such discrimination is specifically prohibited under the treaty and that accepting any such limits would set a dangerous precedent for other treaties that it has signed.

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