Iran's nuclear stockpile grows but not yet in "danger zone"

Tue Nov 27, 2012 1:38pm EST
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By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA (Reuters) - An increase in Iran's higher-grade uranium stockpile is worrying but may arise from a bottleneck in making reactor fuel rather than a bid to quickly accumulate material that could be used for nuclear weapons, diplomats and experts say.

The issue of when and how fast Iran might be able to build an atomic bomb if it chose to do so is closely watched in the West because it could determine any decision by Israel to launch pre-emptive strikes against the Islamic Republic.

Tehran's move this year to use a big part of its most sensitive material - which could otherwise be turned into bomb-grade uranium - for civilian fuel purposes helped ease intense speculation of an imminent attack by the Jewish state.

But tension may soon flare again if Iran's holding were to rapidly approach an amount that would be enough for a weapon, either by stepping up output of higher-enriched uranium or by no longer using the material to produce reactor fuel, or both.

"The question is, at what point do they cross the critical point ... when we enter the danger zone?" one senior diplomatic source said. "Will they decide to voluntarily decide to stay clear of that point?"

A U.N. nuclear watchdog report issued this month showed that Iran in late September suddenly stopped converting uranium gas enriched to a fissile concentration of 20 percent into oxide powder to make fuel for a medical research reactor in Tehran.

Because Iran's enrichment work at the same time continued unabated, the halt meant that its stockpile of the higher-grade uranium rose by nearly 50 percent to 135 kg in November compared with the level in the previous quarterly report in August.

"It is very puzzling," said one intelligence official from a country which suspects Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability, a charge Tehran denies, about the finding reported by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).   Continued...

A section of the Parchin military facility in Iran is pictured in this August 22, 2012 DigitalGlobe handout satellite image. REUTERS/Courtesy DigitalGlobe/Handout (