Iran loading homemade nuclear fuel rods, firing up new centrifuges
Iran says it now has the next generation of centrifuges to enrich uranium for its nuclear program. But US experts are skeptical of Iran's claims.
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Iranian officials have refused to negotiate curbs on the program, saying it aims solely to produce electricity for booming domestic demand in OPEC's No. 2 oil-exporting state.
A senior Iranian official said Iran would load domestically made nuclear fuel rods into its Tehran Research Reactor on Wednesday for the first time to keep it running.
"The first home-made nuclear fuel rods will be loaded in the Tehran Nuclear Research Reactor in the presence of the president," Ali Baqeri, deputy head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told ISNA.
The Tehran reactor produces radio-isotopes for use in medical treatments and agriculture.
Iran says it was forced to manufacture its own fuel for the Tehran reactor after failing to agree terms for a deal to obtain it from the West to replenish imported Argentinian stocks that will run out in the near future.
In 2010, Iran alarmed the West by starting to enrich uranium to a fissile purity of 20 percent for the stated purpose of conversion into special fuel for the Tehran reactor.
In boosting enrichment up from the 3.5 percent level suitable for powering civilian nuclear plants, Iran moved significantly closer to the 90 percent threshold suitable for the fissile core of a nuclear warhead.
"Another achievement to be unveiled today is the inauguration of a project of producing 20 percent enriched uranium at the Natanz facility, as well as producing 20 percent fuel plates," state television said.
Analysts remained doubtful that Iran would be able to operate the research reactor with its own special fuel.
"As usual, the announcement surely is exaggerated.
Producing the fuel plates ... is not so hard. But the plates have to be tested for a considerable period before they can be used safely in the reactor," said Mark Fitzpatrick of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"If Iran is really running the reactor with untested fuel plates, then my advice to the residents surrounding the building would be to move somewhere else. It will he unsafe."
Spent fuel can be reprocessed into plutonium, the alternative key ingredient in atomic bombs. But Western worries about Iran's nuclear programme have focused on its enrichment programme, which has accumulated enough material for up to several bombs, in the view of nuclear proliferation experts.
Analysts say the fuel rod development itself will not put Iran any closer to producing nuclear weapons, but could be a way of telling Tehran's adversaries that time is running out if they want to find a negotiated solution to the dispute.
The most recent talks between world powers and Iran failed in January 2011 because of Tehran's unwillingness to discuss transparent limits on enrichment, as demanded by several U.N. Security Council resolutions passed since 2006.
But Iran said recently it is ready to hold fresh talks with no preconditions. "We will also a reply to the EU's foreign policy chief (about nuclear talks) today," Baqeri said.
(Additional reporting by Mitra Amiri, Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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