Iran said on Tuesday that it was converting some of its higher-grade enriched uranium into reactor fuel, a move that could help prevent a dispute with the West over its nuclear program hitting a crisis in the middle of this year.
Conversion is one way for Iran to slow the growth in its stockpile of material that could be used to make a bomb. That stockpile is currently projected to reach a level intolerable to Israel in mid-year, just as Iran’s room for negotiation is being limited by a presidential election in June.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was asked at a weekly news conference about a report that Iran has converted small amounts of its 20 percent enriched uranium into reactor fuel.
“This work is being done and all its reports have been sent to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] in a complete manner,” he was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.
It was Iran’s first acknowledgment that it had apparently resumed converting into fuel small amounts of uranium enriched to a concentration of 20 percent fissile material.
Iran’s production of that higher-grade uranium worries the major powers because it is only a short technical step away from the 90 percent purity needed for a weapon.
On-off negotiations with the major powers and four rounds of UN Security Council sanctions have failed to persuade Iran to stop its enrichment activities, and the IAEA has been refused full access to investigate other suspect elements of the nuclear program. Iran denies that it is seeking a weapon and says its nuclear program serves only peaceful purposes, such as electricity and the production of medical isotopes.
However, Israel, widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed country in the Middle East, has indicated that Iran’s stockpile will reach a level in June at which it says it must attack to stop Iran acquiring enough fissile material for a bomb. With a presidential election taking place that month, Tehran’s room to make concessions to foreign powers is limited.
In Washington, US President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to visit the Middle East next month, exhorted Iran to reach a diplomatic agreement and stressed his determination to prevent it from obtaining an atomic bomb.
“The leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon,” Obama said in his annual State of the Union speech to Congress.
Iran averted a potential crisis last year by converting about 100kg of its 20 percent enriched uranium into fuel, suggesting to some that it was carefully keeping below the threshold set by Israel, while still advancing its nuclear technology.
It is not believed to have enriched uranium beyond 20 percent. A fuller picture is unlikely until a new IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear activity, due by late this month.