Iran converts some uranium, experts say
TEHRAN — In a bid to ease international concerns over its nuclear program, Iran has converted more than a third of Tehran's most highly enriched uranium into a powder for a medical research reactor that is difficult to reprocess for weapons production, experts and U.N. monitors say.
The work — noted in a technical report by the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency in late August — suggests Iran is trying to display enough goodwill to restart nuclear talks with world powers, while aiming to soften demands by the United States and others to halt Tehran's top-level uranium enrichment.
An influential Iranian parliament member, Hossein Naqavi, said the country was taking a “serious and concrete confidence-building measure” by converting some of the 20 percent enriched stockpile into U3O8, or uranium oxide, in the form of powder.
The measure appears to be part of a wider strategy to seek relief from tightening Western sanctions in exchange for step-by-step plans to scale back uranium enrichment, which Washington and its allies fear could lead to weapons-grade material. Iran insists it only has peaceful nuclear ambitions.
But it has offered no substantial concessions to cut into Iran's stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, the highest level acknowledged by the Islamic Republic. Iran already has enough to provide fuel for its Tehran research reactor for years and labs are equipped to make more material at that level, said Olli Heinonen, former director-general at the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency who headed the organization's Iran file until 2010.
So far, Iran's proposals have met with resistance from the West as the economic toll from the embargos take a toll, including protests this week after the nation's currency shed nearly 40 percent of its value.
Iran's 20 percent enrichment program is among the core disputes. That's because it can be boosted to weapons-grade far more rapidly than the 3.5 percent-enriched uranium used for Iran's lone energy reactor.
Iran maintains it needs this degree of enrichment for its medical research reactor, which can produce isotopes for cancer treatment. It also has announced plans to build more such reactors. The United States and allies want Iran to halt the 20 percent production and ship the rest of the material outside the country.
The impasse has put talks on hold between Iran and a six-nation group, the permanent Security Council members plus Germany.
Iranian officials repeatedly insist they will never give up the capacity uranium enrichment. But tightening Western sanctions and growing public outcry could open Tehran's leadership to more deal-making.
The IAEA confirmed in its Aug. 30 report Iran had made U308 — uranium oxide — from 157 pounds of its total of nearly 419 pounds of 20 percent enriched uranium produced until mid-August.