Thursday, February 19, 2009

Iran slows atom plant growth but fuel stockpile rises

By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has slowed the expansion of its uranium enrichment plant but has built up a stockpile of nuclear fuel, an International Atomic Energy Agency report said on Thursday.
The U.N. watchdog said Iran had increased the number of centrifuges refining uranium, a process that can produce fuel for civilian energy or atom bombs, by only 136 from 3,800 in November.
"We see the pace of installing and bringing centrifuges into operation has slowed quite considerably since August," a senior U.N. official said.
But Iran's reported stockpile of low-enriched uranium had risen to 1,010 kg from 630 kg in November and 480 kg in August. The heightened output rate suggested existing centrifuges were operating at higher capacity and more glitch-free than before.
The United States urged Iran to give up its enrichment activities and said Tehran's refusal to respond constructively to IAEA requests over its program was "deeply troubling."
"We view this report as another opportunity lost to resolve international concerns," U.S. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid told reporters in Washington.
"Absent Iranian compliance with its international nuclear obligations and transparency with the IAEA, the international community cannot have confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program," he said.
Iran says it is producing nuclear fuel only for civil nuclear energy. Western powers, frustrated by restrictions on IAEA inspections, suspect otherwise.
Western non-proliferation analysts estimate from 1,000 to 1,700 kg would be needed as a basis for conversion into high-enriched uranium to make one bomb and Tehran could reach that threshold within a few months.
But it would take Iran another two to five years before it was capable of producing nuclear weapons, IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei said this week.
The report said Iran was still boycotting IAEA inspectors looking into Western allegations of past covert atom bomb research.
As long as Iran continued to withhold access to documentation, Iranian officials and sites, the IAEA would be unable to verify whether Iranian nuclear activity was peaceful or not, it said.
Tehran says the mainly U.S. intelligence was forged.
Progress in the IAEA inquiry, which Iran regards as driven by U.S. pressure, looks unlikely before Iran sees what U.S. President Barack Obama has to offer under his offer of direct talks with adversaries. Continued...