Insight: Iran nuclear fuel move may avert mid-year crisis

Sun Feb 10, 2013 1:50pm EST
 
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By Myra MacDonald and Fredrik Dahl

LONDON/VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran appears to have resumed converting small amounts of its higher-grade enriched uranium into reactor fuel, diplomats say, a process which if expanded could buy time for negotiations between Washington and Tehran on its disputed nuclear program.

The possibility of Iran converting enriched uranium into fuel - slowing a growth in stockpiles of material that could be used to make weapons - is one of the few ways in which the nuclear dispute could avoid hitting a crisis by the summer.

Tehran could otherwise have amassed sufficient stock by June to hit a "red line" set by Israel after which it has indicated it could attack to prevent Iran acquiring enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Yet few expect progress in talks until after the Iranian presidential election in June - a formula for a potentially explosive clash of timetables.

Diplomats accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna told Reuters that Iran had apparently resumed converting into fuel small amounts of higher-grade enriched uranium - thereby reducing the amount potentially available for nuclear weapons - though they had few details and one told Reuters that "very, very little had been done" so far.

A fuller picture is unlikely until a new IAEA report on Iran's nuclear activity, due by late February. But the question is crucial in determining the size of its stockpiles and how close these are to Israel's red line. "We will all be doing the mathematics soon," said one diplomat.

In September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not let Iran acquire enough material for a bomb; enriching uranium raises the less than one percent of fissile isotope U-235 found in mined metal to higher concentrations: about 4 percent for reactor fuel, up to 90 percent for a bomb.

While scientists differ about how much uranium is needed to have the ability quickly to make a bomb, analysts say the Israeli figure is believed to be 240 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent; at that concentration, the material is nine tenths of the way to the weapons-grade of about 90 percent, since most of the unwanted isotopes have been separated out by then.

"Israeli officials, in private, widely use the 240kg figure," said Shashank Joshi, a Research Fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). "The figure is so specific and so widely used that they must understand the implications of drawing this red line: that Iran is free to produce anything up to that amount, but that producing any more would force Israel to choose between humiliation or war."   Continued...

 
A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi