Iran to enrich uranium to higher level: Ahmadinejad

Wed Dec 2, 2009 1:07pm EST
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By Parisa Hafezi

TEHRAN (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday Iran would enrich uranium to a higher level itself, apparently ruling out a U.N.-brokered deal meant to minimize the risk of Tehran producing material for atomic bombs.

Western diplomats said Iran accepted in principle two months ago a plan for it to send 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France to be further enriched, then converted into fuel for Iran's nuclear medicine program.

The West hoped that farming out much of Iran's LEU reserve for this humanitarian purpose would minimize the risk of Tehran refining the material to high purity suitable for nuclear arms -- a suspicion kindled by Iran's record of nuclear secrecy and stonewalling of U.N. atomic watchdog investigations.

But Tehran has since retreated from the deal, demanding what Western diplomats call killer amendments that would keep its LEU stockpile intact. Some Iranian officials suggested Iran could enrich the LEU itself from 3.5 percent to the 20 percent level needed to yield fuel rods for Iran's medical isotope reactor.

Ahmadinejad was more explicit. "By the grace of God, the Iranian nation will produce 20 percent enriched uranium and anything it needs (itself)," he said in a televised speech in the central city of Isfahan. He did not give a timetable.

If it goes ahead, Iran may stoke suspicions that its eventual nuclear goal is warheads, since it lacks the technology to fabricate medical reactor fuel from higher-grade LEU. For atom bombs, uranium must be enriched to 90 percent purity.

Iran could be enriching to 20 percent "within months" after changing the settings of its centrifuge machines, said David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, which tracks suspected nuclear proliferators.

"Once at 20 percent, they'd be 90 percent of the way to 90 percent enrichment in terms of the time it takes," he said.   Continued...

<p>An Iranian operator monitors the nuclear power plant unit in Bushehr, south of Tehran, November 30, 2009. REUTERS/ISNA/Mehdi Ghasemi</p>