Iranian Decision to Convert 20% Uranium May Be Good News

Iran’s decision to convert a third of its higher-enriched uranium into metal plates will make it more difficult for the Persian Gulf country to assemble an atomic weapon if it decides to to so, nuclear-security analysts say.

United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have verified that Iran converted about 33 percent of its 20 percent-enriched uranium stockpile, according to two senior international officials. Iran used about 49 kilograms (108 pounds) of the 145 kilogram stockpile to make fuel in the form of metal plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, they said on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“There is some good news overlooked,” Robert Kelley, a nuclear engineer and the IAEA’s former top inspector for Iraq, said today in an interview. “This makes the material much less of a danger for further enrichment, and once it has been irradiated it is of even less concern.”

Iran’s growing stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium tops the list of concerns among world nuclear powers negotiating with the Islamic republic. The heavy metal purified to 20 percent can make medical isotopes used to diagnose and treat cancer. Only a small technical step is required to enrich uranium to the weapons-grade 90 percent level.

Building Confidence

“The facts on the ground in Iran seem to support Iran’s assertion that it has been systematically working on developing a fuel-fabrication capability,” Mark Hibbs, an analyst at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said today in an interview in Vienna. “This should provide the six powers more confidence that Iran has a narrative to explain its interest in 20 percent-enriched uranium fuel.”

Diplomats from China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. meet their Iranian counterparts in Moscow on June 18-19. It will be the third round of talks in three months over Iran’s nuclear work, which the West says is a cover for nuclear weapons and Iran insists is peaceful.

Israel dismisses Iranian assurances that it’s not working on an atomic bomb and demands that the Persian Gulf country halt all uranium enrichment and scrap nuclear material it’s produced. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on May 30 that Iran must be stopped before it develops a nuclear weapon and warned that the clock is “ticking faster” for Israel than it is for the U.S.

Secret Enrichment?

The Institute for Science and International Security says global concern about Iran’s ability to covertly enrich uranium to bomb grade may increase next year. That’s because of “the possible construction of a hidden centrifuge-enrichment site and simultaneously growing stocks of 3.5 and 19.75 percent low- enriched uranium that would allow the speedier production of weapon-grade uranium,” David Albright, director of the Washington-based group, wrote in a report yesterday.

Peter Jenkins, a partner at ADRgAmbassadors LLP who hosted Iran discussions as the U.K.’s former IAEA envoy, said it’s “significant” that Iran has begun to transform its stock of 20 percent into metal. “It demonstrates that the 20 percent program is indeed about producing fuel for the TRR and not, as critics have alleged, about moving closer to building nuclear weapons,” he wrote in an e-mailed reply to questions.

Negotiators should focus on helping Iran to convert more of its 20-percent stockpile into metal rather than asking the country to export the uranium in exchange for manufactured reactor fuel, he said.

Time, Opportunity

“It has used its additional output of uranium enriched to 20 percent for fabricating fuel plates for its Tehran Research Reactor, which effectively leaves its current 20-percent stockpile relatively unchanged,” Arms Control Association Director Daryl Kimball wrote on June 2 in an e-mailed response to questions. “This means there is still time and an opportunity for a win-win deal at the Moscow round of P5+1 talks with Iran that leads to a halt of 20 percent enrichment.”

The IAEA reported on May 25 that Iran increased its 20 percent stockpile to 145 kilograms from 109 kilograms in November. The country has made three fuel assemblies for the Tehran Research Reactor and inserted one of them into the reactor’s core, the senior international officials said.

Converting the 20 percent uranium into fuel makes it more difficult to use the material for weapons, if Iran ever chose to do so, according to Kelly. Scientists would need to develop chemical processes over a period of months to re-convert the uranium into a form suitable for enrichment.

Trade Sanctions

Iran, the second-biggest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is under dozens of trade sanctions for its nuclear work. A European oil embargo is set to come into force next month.

“This development underlines why a comprehensive diplomatic solution has to provide confidence that Iran doesn’t have undeclared and undisclosed nuclear-fuel capabilities,” Hibbs said. “Iran could not have developed capability for making reactor fuel using 20 percent-enriched uranium without a substantial prior investment in research and development for this activity.”

IAEA inspectors meet with Iranian officials on June 8 to negotiate broader access to atomic facilities. Agency Director General Yukiya Amano said on May 22 that Iran and the IAEA had agreed to a deal.

“I continue to hope the agreement will be signed soon,” Amano said yesterday in the Austrian capital. The IAEA’s 35 member board of governors is meeting for a second day in Vienna.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at jtirone@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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