Iran said it has 17 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium, more than triple the amount United Nations nuclear inspectors found there in April and about 10 percent of what scientists say is needed to begin making a bomb.
“We can potentially produce 5 kilograms (11 pounds) a month, but we are not in a rush,” Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who heads Iran’s atomic agency, was cited as saying today by the state-run Iranian Students News Agency. “Iran can enrich to any percentage it wants as its legitimate right.”
A nuclear weapon could be made by enriching 150 to 200 kilograms of 20 percent uranium to a concentration of 80 to 90 percent, Paul Ingram, executive director of the London-based British American Security Information Council, said today in a phone interview. “Enriching to 20 percent is like going about 80 percent of the way towards having military material,” he said.
Iran has refused UN Security Council demands to suspend uranium enrichment, saying the work is necessary for civilian purposes, such as power generation. The UN Security Council on June 9 approved a fourth round of sanctions against Iran’s nuclear development, which the U.S. and its allies say may be intended for a weapons program.
“It’s a game of threat from the Security Council and then a game of response by Iran, and they’re playing chicken with each other,” Ingram said. “Iran is essentially underlining the point that if the strategy of the Security Council is to continue to attempt to impose more sanctions on them and isolate them, then they will simply respond with their enrichment program and they know that their enrichment to 20 percent underlines the nervousness of the Security Council.”
By September 2011, Iran will begin operating a plant to convert its 20 percent uranium into fuel to run a Tehran reactor that produces medical isotopes, Salehi said. Under a proposed international deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil on May 17, Iran had said it would swap some of its 3.5 percent-enriched uranium for imported fuel to run the reactor.
France and Argentina are the only countries with the technology to make fuel for the type of reactor operating in Tehran, Ingram said. Iran’s timeline for a plant to produce its own fuel is “rather optimistic,” and the reactor may run out before an Iranian-made supply is available, he said.
The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency said its inspectors confirmed during an April 7 visit that Iran had produced 5.7 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium, according to a May 31 report.
Enriching uranium to 90 percent from 20 percent accounts for about half the time needed to get the raw heavy metal into the concentrated form needed for a weapon, Federation of American Scientists physicist Ivan Oelrich said in a May 19 note. Iran is “perfectly capable” of enriching to 90 percent, he said.