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Iran nuclear program: Can it produce its own fuel?

Ahmadinejad said Wednesday that the Iran nuclear program could produce its own higher enriched nuclear fuel. But some analysts cast doubt on Iran's capacity to do so.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 2, 2009

In this photo released by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), Iranian technicians work with foreign colleagues at Iran's Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant on Monday.

Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA/AP


Istanbul, Turkey

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran will make its own higher enriched nuclear fuel, effectively rejecting a UN-backed exchange proposal that would have eased Western fears about Iran's nuclear program.

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A defiant Mr. Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday that Iran was tired of the continued sparring over a swap offer, in which it would ship out its own low-enriched uranium, purified to less than 5 percent, for the 20-percent enriched fuel it needs.

"I declare that by the grace of God, the Iranian nation will produce 20 percent enriched uranium and anything it needs itself," Ahmadinejad told thousands of people in the central city of Isfahan. It was Iran's latest volley in a nuclear back-and-forth with the UN nuclear watchdog agency and the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany.

Yet analysts cast doubt on Iran's technical and industrial capacity to fulfill either that pledge, or the dramatic expansion of Iran's nuclear enrichment effort announced last Sunday.

Iran is not known to have the technology to fabricate its own fuel rods. France and Argentina are practically alone in being able to supply the specific fuel needed by Iran's small reactor to continue producing medical isotopes in Tehran.

Iran censured last week

The US has led Western efforts for the deal, which would have seen Iran reduce the amount of material inside the country that could hypothetically be enriched to much higher levels of 90 percent necessary for a weapon.

Iran was censured last week in an overwhelming vote by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over its belated declaration of a small, 3,000-centrifuge facility hidden under a mountain near Qom. Revealed in September, inspectors found it to be in an "advanced" stage of construction.

Iran calls the IAEA decision "illegal," and in reaction on Sunday, Ahmadinejad's cabinet approved 10 new industrial-sized enrichment facilities that would mean a 50-fold increase in capacity to more than half a million spinning centrifuges – a goal that would take decades to achieve if actually pursued.

Ahmadinejad said those plans were "not a bluff," during a televised speech on Tuesday.

Yet analysts say the rapid-fire claims of new programs in recent days belie a nuclear program that has had a rocky history of progress. Instructive are the host of problems Iran has already faced in building its first large-scale enrichment facility at Natanz. Designed for some 50,000 centrifuges, just 8,700 have been installed after nearly a decade.

"Iran would probably need to develop significantly stronger domestic capabilities if it were to come anywhere close to meeting this new goal," says Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who has followed Iran's nuclear program for years.