UN agency investigates higher enrichment at Iranian site
By GEORGE JAHN
The Associated Press
Updated: 6:06 p.m. Friday, May 25, 2012
VIENNA — Inspectors have located radioactive traces at an Iranian underground bunker, the U.N. atomic agency said Friday — a finding that could mean Iran has moved closer to reaching the uranium threshold needed to arm nuclear missiles.
In a report obtained by The Associated Press, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it was asking Tehran for a full explanation. But the report was careful to avoid any suggestion that Iran was intentionally increasing the level of its uranium enrichment, noting that Tehran said a technical glitch was responsible.
Analysts as well as diplomats who had told the AP of the existence of the traces before publication of the confidential report also said the higher-enriched material could have been a mishap involving centrifuges over-performing as technicians adjusted their output rather than a dangerous step toward building a bomb.
Still, the finding was bound to resonate among the 35 IAEA board members for whom the report was prepared, among them the six world powers that had just concluded talks with Iran on its enrichment activities. The negotiations in Baghdad left the two sides still far apart over how to oversee Tehran's atomic program but resolved to keep dialogue going next month in Moscow as an alternative to possible military action.
The report also expressed in opaque terms what diplomats accredited to the IAEA first started mentioning more than a month ago: The agency fears a massive cleanup under way at buildings at the Parchin military complex southeast of Tehran. The site is suspected of housing a pressure chamber and related equipment used to test ways of detonating a nuclear charge.
"Based on satellite imagery at this location ... the buildings of interest to the agency are now subject to extensive activities that could hamper the agency's ability to undertake effective verification" at the site, said the report. Separately, a senior international official familiar with the issue said satellite photos showed trucks at the site and streams of liquid suggesting the interiors were being hosed down to wash away evidence of possible nuclear-related work.
The report said that over the past five months the agency had "obtained more information" buttressing its suspicions about the Parchin site, which it has asked repeatedly to visit, only to be turned down by Iran.
On enrichment, the six world powers trying to engage Iran are already concerned about its output of uranium at the 20 percent level because material that high can be turned into weapons-grade much more quickly than its main, low-enriched stockpile.
The higher the enrichment, the easier it becomes to re-enrich uranium to warhead quality at 90 percent. As a result, the finding of traces at 27 percent at the Fordo enrichment plant in central Iran sparked international interest.
Iran denies any plans to possess nuclear weapons but has for years declined offers of reactor fuel from abroad, including more recent inducements of 20-percent material if it stops producing at that level. The Islamic Republic says it wants to continue producing 20 percent uranium to fuel its research reactor and for medical purposes.
But its refusal to accept foreign offers has increased fears it may want to turn its enrichment activities toward producing such arms. The concerns have been fed by IAEA suspicions that Iran has experimented on components of an atomic arms program — suspicions Tehran also denies.
The report cited a May 9 letter from Iranian officials suggesting any enrichment at 27 percent was inadvertent. The letter said the particles were produced "above the target value" and could have been for "technical reasons beyond the operator's control."
David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security looks for signs of proliferation, said a new configuration at Fordo means it tends to "overshoot 20 percent" at the start.
"Nonetheless, embarrassing for Iran," he wrote in an email to the AP.
Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, described such a surge as a "naturally occurring development," adding that "it's very usual" to go above envisaged enrichment levels at startups of centrifuges.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said "there are a number of possible explanations for this, including the one that the Iranians have provided. But we are going to depend on the IAEA to get to the bottom of it."