Iran expands nuclear work: IAEA

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Iran first started refining small batches of uranium to 20 percent purity in February, saying it wanted to produce fuel for a medical research reactor.

This raised Western suspicion because that takes enrichment closer to the 90 percent purity needed to make atomic weapons. Iran is also thought to lack the capability to make the special fuel assemblies needed for the medical research reactor.


Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful uses only. Yet, major world powers have recently backed a draft U.N. sanctions resolution against its atomic work.

The nine-page International Atomic Energy Agency report said Iran has added a second set of 164 centrifuges -- nuclear enrichment machines -- to help refine uranium to 20 percent purity. The report said they were not yet operational.

At the time of the previous report in February, Iran had only one set of centrifuges installed for the work.

The Islamic Republic has told the agency that the extra machines will support the enrichment work by allowing material to be re-fed into the machines.

But analysts say they could be configured to expand the production, a move which would ring alarm bells in the West.

"Iran continues to broaden and deepen its enrichment capabilities," said David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security.

Tehran has granted a months-old IAEA request to allow better oversight of the higher enrichment. The agency has said however that should have been in place as soon as it started to ensure the material was not being diverted for military uses.

Under a new agreement between Iran and the IAEA, inspectors have been able to improve camera angles, keep track of nuclear material and equipment by putting it under agency seal as well as conduct inspections at short notice.

"This is good enough for when the cascades are eventually interconnected," said a senior official familiar with the Iran investigation. "In this case the (inspections) regime is very tough."

FUEL OFFERS

Iran said it started higher enrichment because it was frustrated over stalled talks with major powers over a plan to provide it with fuel for the research reactor which produces isotopes for cancer treatment.

Under the IAEA-backed plan, brokered in October, Iran would ship 1.2 tons of its low-enriched uranium stockpile abroad in return for the fuel. Earlier this month Turkey and Brazil came up with a similar plan, which Iran said it backed.

But the new IAEA report showed Iran's low-enriched uranium stockpile had grown to 2.4 tons, meaning that if the 1.2 tons was shipped out now it would still leave Iran with enough material for a nuclear weapon if enriched to higher levels.

"Based on this report Washington is going to feel justified in downplaying the Brazilian-Turkish-Iranian deal and focusing on sanctions instead," Albright said.

The report said Iran had slightly increased the number of centrifuges enriching uranium to lower levels at Natanz to 3,936, the first expansion in around a year. The number installed but not enriching had fallen slightly to 8,610.

(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Dubai; editing by Maria Golovnina)

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