Iran resumed uranium conversion activities today at a nuclear facility – a step that Europeans and the US warned would prompt them to seek UN sanctions against Tehran.
Work resumed at the Isfahan conversion facility quickly after inspectors from the UN nuclear watchdog finished installing surveillance equipment there and seals on equipment were removed.
Iran had suspended work at the plant and its other nuclear facilities in November to avoid UN sanctions and as a gesture in negotiations with the Europeans.
The resumption escalates a confrontation between Iran and the West over its nuclear programme, which the Europeans have been trying to convince the Iranians to sharply limit. But Iran on Saturday rejected European proposals for it to curtail the program in return for economic incentives.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation board of governors holds an emergency session tomorrow to consider whether to refer Iran to the UN Security Council, which could impose economic sanctions. Germany, France and the US have said they would likely recommend doing so if work at Isfahan resumes.
The US accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, while Iran insists its programme aims only to produce electricity. But Iran has insisted it has the right to develop the entire fuel cycle – from raw uranium to the fuel for a reactor. Europe fears that if Iran can develop fuel on its own, it will also secretly produce material for a bomb.
The Conversion Facility, 10 miles southeast of the historical city of Isfahan, carried out an early stage of the fuel cycle, turning raw uranium, known as yellowcake, into UF-6 gas, the feedstock for enrichment.
In the next stage of the process – which Iran has said it will not resume for the time being – the gas is fed in centrifuges for enrichment. Uranium enriched to a low level is used to produce nuclear fuel and further enrichment makes it suitable for use in atomic bomb.
The official Islamic Republic News Agency announced that the Isfahan plant resumed work today, with uranium ore “taken into a special room for injection, sampling and other reprocessing activities.” It said the plant will soon start turning yellowcake into UF-4, a preliminary stage before UF-6.
IAEA inspectors will remove seals from the unit where UF-4 is turned into UF-6 in the next few days, bringing the facility into full work, the television said.
Before the suspension of work at the plant, Iran converted some 37 tons of yellowcake into UF-4. Experts say that amount of yellowcake could yield more than 200lbs of weapons-grade uranium, enough to make five crude nuclear weapons.
The Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan and the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, also central Iran, house the heart of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Iran says suspension of all its nuclear activities has harmed its technological advancement and left hundreds of scientists without work. Iran’s nuclear programme has also turned into a matter of national pride for both reformers and hardliners within Iran’s ruling Islamic establishment.
On Saturday, Iran rejected the European proposals, saying the offer failed to recognise Iran’s right to enrich uranium, a right given under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
Under the proposals, Iran would agree not to resume enrichment or other related activities and in return Europe would ensure it a supply of fuel for nuclear reactors, technical help in building nuclear facilities and other economic incentives.
Ali Agha Mohammadi, spokesman of the Supreme National Security Council, the country’s top security decision-making body, told IRNA that Britain, Germany and France will officially be notified of Iran’s rejection of the European proposals later today.