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01 Mar 2009 10:03
The UN atomic watchdog will take its first look at Iran’s nuclear programme since the change of president in the United States at a meeting starting on Monday.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will also study Syria’s nuclear activities and discuss who could replace the watchdog’s director general Mohamed ElBaradei who is to stand down in November, diplomats said.
The IAEA’s six year-old investigation into Iran’s nuclear activities is deadlocked, with Tehran refusing to suspend uranium enrichment, despite repeated UN sanctions. It is also stonewalling questions on the possible military dimensions of past nuclear work.
This regular spring meeting of the IAEA’s 35-member board of governors will be the first since US President Barack Obama took power and said could be ready for direct talks with Iran.
But Iran’s first satellite launch and the announcement that its first nuclear power plant in Bushehr could go on line within months have heightened proliferation concerns in many Western countries.
So is the assessment, by some analysts, that Tehran may soon have sufficient nuclear material to build a bomb.
According to the IAEA, Tehran now has 1 010kg of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride from its enrichment activities at a plant at Natanz.
That “is sufficient for a nuclear weapons breakout capability”, according to David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security and an expert on Iran’s nuclear programme.
A breakout capability is when there is sufficient low-enriched uranium, which is used for nuclear fuel, to turn into high-enriched uranium (HEU) needed for an atomic bomb.
While IAEA experts put the amount needed at about 1,700 kilogrammes of LEU, some analysts believe that smaller quantities might be enough.
Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, insisted that Natanz was not configured to produce HEU.
Round-the-clock camera surveillance, the presence of inspectors and the ability of UN inspectors to make unannounced inspections made it “practically impossible” for Iran switch from making low-enriched to high-enriched uranium, he said.
“The world would know within a second,” he said.
According to IAEA figures, 3 936 centrifuges are enriching uranium at Natanz, with a further 1 476 being dry tested and another 125 installed but not spinning.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation Gholam Reza Aghazadeh said on Wednesday there are 6 000 and predicted the number would grow to 50 000 “in the next five years”.
The IAEA is also worried about Syria where UN inspectors first went last June to investigate allegations that Damascus had a secret North Korea-designed nuclear reactor in the remote desert, until it was bombed by Israeli jets in September 2007.
Syria rejects the accusations, but the IAEA has found unexplained traces of uranium and graphite at the site and is demanding an explanation.
The head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, Ibrahim Othman, disputed the IAEA’s findings last week and told diplomats the site was now a missile facility and the agency had no right to visit.
The IAEA board’s final major concern is ElBaradei’s succession after his 12 years in the post.
There are currently only two candidates, Japanese ambassador Yukiya Amano and South Africa’s Abdul Samad Minty.
Amano is believed to have garnered more votes than Minty, but some diplomats say he may not be able to secure the necessary two-thirds majority which could open the race to other candidates.
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