Iran Rift Risked as IAEA Seeks Details on Rare Atomic Experiment

United Nations nuclear investigators want Iran to produce more information about experiments it conducted in the early 1990s with polonium, a rare metal that has been used to trigger nuclear weapons.

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are traveling to Tehran for a meeting with Iranian officials tomorrow, when they’ll try to craft a plan to clear up alleged nuclear-weapons work. While the IAEA had previously said past Iranian experiments with polonium appeared peaceful, Director General Yukiya Amano told the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 2 that investigators want more details.

Iran’s polonium work is “something that would benefit from further clarification,” IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in an e-mailed reply to questions. She added that Amano had been responding to a question from a member of the audience.

With Iran and world powers set to resume talks over a long-term nuclear accord on Feb. 18 in Vienna, some former IAEA inspectors say a renewed emphasis on polonium risks undermining the negotiations. The metal, which triggered the 1945 atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki and which was used in 2006 to poison a former Russian spy in London, can also be used to make nuclear batteries and to clear dust from high-performance instruments.

“The Feb. 8 meetings between IAEA and Iran are a time for candor, trust and transparency,” Robert Kelley, a U.S. nuclear-weapons engineer who led IAEA investigations of Iraq, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “If Amano is reopening a completely dead and settled issue, how can Iran trust him?”

Trust Deficit

The Persian Gulf nation, home to the world’s fourth-biggest proven oil reserves, says its nuclear program is for power generation and not intended to develop weapons.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, sitting on the same panel in Munich, said “there’s a very serious trust-deficit on all sides.” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Behruz Kamalvandi said his country didn’t intend to re-open the closed polonium investigation with UN inspectors.

In 1988, Tehran’s Nuclear Research Center approved a round of polonium experiments inside its research reactor, where the material was made by irradiating the mineral bismuth. Iran showed agency inspectors documentation, meeting minutes and a complete copy of the reactor log, said Herman Nackaerts, who headed the Vienna-based agency’s investigation until November.

“Explanations given by Iran concerning the content and magnitude of the polonium experiments were consistent with the agency’s findings and the issue was considered no longer outstanding,” he said in a phone interview.

Feeding Information

The IAEA’s March 2008 decision to suspend the investigation into Iran’s polonium experiments, made during Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei’s tenure, prompted French and U.S. diplomats to seek new ways to reintroduce the issue. At the time, some diplomats didn’t want ElBaradei’s initiative to resolve allegations against Iran to derail sanctions.

France “suggested intensifying our involvement in verification of formerly outstanding issues, such as polonium, by feeding the secretariat additional information,” former U.S. IAEA envoy Greg Schulte wrote in March 2008 after the polonium file had been cleared. The French embassy didn’t respond to e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.

The Geneva deal between world powers and Iran “opens up the potential for great mischief by opponents, including possibly supplying fabricated information to the agency to torpedo the deal using the IAEA,” Tariq Rauf, the IAEA’s former head of Verification and Security Policy, said in an interview. “Previously forged and dubious information has been provided to the IAEA on Iraq and Iran.”

Little Sense

One reason that Amano may seek more information about Iran’s polonium experiments would be to learn how research was administered, said Olli Heinonen, who was the IAEA chief inspector when the 2008 report was written.

“Amano may have had his reasons to refer to polonium,” Heinonen said in an e-mail. “Those polonium production experiments in the early 1990s made little scientific or technical sense.”

While the research may not have made sense, the line of investigation is a waste of resources and risks undermining more important issues, according to Kelley.

“There is not even a technical issue worth discussing let alone re-opening,” he said. “Polonium is an obsolete World War II technology developed in haste and replaced almost immediately with better initiators that AQ Khan has been known to peddle.”

Smuggled Technology

Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who smuggled nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, sold designs for a uranium-deuteride nuclear trigger that is more effective than polonium. The IAEA reported in November 2011 that it received credible information Iran had investigated the newer trigger design.

Iran’s polonium work “was of minor importance and was stopped already before 2008,” said Behrooz Bayat, an Iranian physicist who has consulted with the IAEA. “Questions like polonium and Parchin will remain until a comprehensive and sustainable accord is reached.”

IAEA inspectors are expected to return from their meetings with Iranian officials next week.

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