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Iran’s Nuclear Fuel Rod Isn’t Military Threat, U.S. Analysts Say

Iran’s development of a nuclear fuel rod for medical research isn’t a milestone in a quest for atomic weapons, according to energy analysts in the U.S.

“This has some diplomatic significance and virtually no military significance,” James Acton, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Although Iran’s announcement sends a signal that the country may have the ability to develop fuel for research uses without external help, such units need uranium that’s less concentrated than what’s needed to make weapons, he said.

The first fuel rod was inserted into the core of Tehran’s atomic research reactor, which makes isotopes used in cancer treatments, Iranian state news agencies reported Jan. 1. The disclosure triggered alarms among U.S. and European Union leaders who say Iran may be developing a covert nuclear-weapons program and are seeking to thwart development.

President Barack Obama on Dec. 31 signed into law sanctions to deter dealings with Iran’s central bank, and the EU may decide by Jan. 30 whether to extend its sanctions.

Iran, the world’s third-largest oil exporter, denies pursuing atomic weapons and says it’s developing nuclear technology for civilian purposes. The country’s first nuclear-power plant, a Russian-built 1,000-megawatt facility, was connected to the national power grid on Sept. 12 and then closed for testing in October.

Revolution Milestone

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said the plant may operate at full capacity in February, to coincide with the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian news agency Mehr reported Nov. 23.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, a Vienna-based organization that promotes the peaceful use of atomic energy, didn’t have a comment on Iran’s announcement, Gill Tudor, a spokeswoman, said by telephone.

Iran is running out of the 19.75 percent enriched uranium needed to power Tehran’s research reactor, Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a phone interview.

Only Argentina and France make this type of fuel, she said. Weapons-grade uranium is at least 90 percent enriched and power-plant fuel is enriched about 3 percent to 5 percent, she said.

Making Medicine

Iran can produce 20 percent enriched uranium, according to Acton, who said he thinks it is pursuing a nuclear-weapons program.

“Twenty-percent-enriched uranium is only for the needs of a reactor that produces medicine,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at a Sept. 23 news conference in New York. He has said Iran will cease enrichment activities if it can receive a guaranteed source of 20 percent enriched uranium.

Iran’s fuel-rod announcement may lessen the likelihood that the country will participate in such a deal, Squassoni said.

“If fuel fabrication succeeds now, there’s one fewer incentive” to negotiate, she said in an e-mail.

Iran’s announcement “provides political cover for their continued enrichment of uranium” to just less than 20 percent, according to Squassoni. “It has no connection to a nuclear weapons timeline.”

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