Iran has further stoked Western fears about the purpose of its nuclear activities by starting to enrich fissile material in a new site deep inside a virtually impregnable mountain bunker.
The Fordo site near the holy city of Qom, 150km southwest of Tehran, has begun enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said late on Monday.
US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Iran’s enriching of uranium to 20 percent at the site was “a further escalation of their ongoing violations with regard to their nuclear obligations.”
“We call on Iran once again to suspend enrichment activities, cooperate fully with the IAEA and immediately comply with all [UN] Security Council and IAEA board of governors resolutions,” Nuland told reporters in Washington.
Experts say that the process of obtaining 20 percent enriched uranium represents the lion’s share of the work needed to get the material purified to the level of 90 percent or above required for atomic weapons.
Iran, which says its nuclear activities are peaceful, said the material was for its Tehran research reactor to make isotopes for cancer treatments, but Western powers believe it has a much more sinister and destructive purpose.
“This is a provocative act which further undermines Iran’s claims that its program is entirely civilian in nature,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, echoing the concerns of Washington, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere.
Mark Fitzpatrick from the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the action brings Tehran “closer to being able to quickly produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.”
IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said that all nuclear material “remains under the Agency’s containment and surveillance” at Fordo.
However, the fear is that if Iran decided to expel IAEA inspectors and enrich uranium to weapons-grade purity, Fordo would enable them to produce enough fissile material in a short space of time.
France called the move to enrich uranium at the mountain bunker a “particularly grave violation by Iran of international law.”
This, Paris said, leaves “no choice but to strengthen international sanctions and to adopt, with our European partners and all willing countries, measures of an unprecedented scale and severity.”