Analysis: Nuclear Inspections Complete Visit Of Two New Nuclear Facilities In Iran That The Country Says Are Being Built For Energy Production
U.N. Inspectors View Nuclear Plants in Iran
All Things Considered: February 27, 2003
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
UN nuclear inspectors have now completed initial visits to two new nuclear facilities in Iran. Until recently, Iran did not acknowledge the existence of these facilities. The US says that they could give Iran the capacity to build nuclear weapons; Iran insists they're for the production of nuclear energy. From the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, NPR's Mike Shuster reports.
MIKE SHUSTER reporting:
The new facilities that the International Atomic Energy Agency has visited are a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water production plant at Arak. According to IAEA sources, the uranium enrichment facility is being built underground. An initial pilot-scale cascade of gas centrifuges has already been built, but it has not yet received nuclear material, which it could turn into highly enriched uranium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. IAEA officials were surprised at the scale of the facility and how far along its construction is. They saw components for a much more elaborate array of centrifuges that could turn out a substantial amount of highly enriched uranium.
The existence of these facilities was first disclosed publicly last summer by an Iranian opposition group, the National Resistance Council of Iran. Only then did Tehran acknowledge to the IAEA that the facilities were under construction and invite inspectors in. Now, says IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei, who visited the uranium enrichment plant last Saturday, the agency would like Iran to commit itself legally to greater openness and more access to all its nuclear facilities.
Mr. MOHAMED ELBARADEI (International Atomic Energy Agency): Iran, during the visit, however, committed themself to enter into this legal commitment, and as of now, they will inform us of any new facilities from the day they decided to construct that facility.
SHUSTER: The United States believes Iran is building the facility in order to eventually make nuclear weapons. The Iranian government says it wants a uranium enrichment plant to produce low enriched uranium for fuel in nuclear power reactors. Gary Saymore, who tracked Iran's nuclear activities in the State Department and the White House in the 1990s, has his doubts.
Mr. GARY SAYMORE: That explanation is not very plausible given the status of Iran's nuclear power program. They have only one nuclear power plant under construction by Russia, and the Russians have a contract to provide lifetime fuel services to that facility. So there's very little technical need for Iran to have a plant in order to produce enriched uranium for their own nuclear power fuel.
SHUSTER: Saymore also argues that Iran could buy nuclear power fuel far more cheaply than it could produce it on its own.
Mr. SAYMORE: As a technical and economic matter, it makes much more sense because there's actually a surplus of enrichment capability around the world. It makes much more sense to buy enrichment services for power reactor fuel on the open market as opposed to building your own facility, which can't possibly compete with the very large facilities that already exist and already produce low enriched uranium for commercial power reactors.
SHUSTER: But the Iranian government argues that it wants its own complete nuclear fuel cycle to be independent from the rest of the world. Right now the nation that cooperates most with Iran on nuclear technologies is Russia. Under heavy pressure from the United States, Russia is insisting that the nuclear fuel it is providing for the power reactor under construction at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf be returned to Russia when it is used up. That way, Iran could not reprocess the spent fuel to extract plutonium, which could also be used to make weapons. Vladimir Orlov, a Russian specialist on these matters, says the Iranian government has concluded it cannot rely on Moscow entirely for its nuclear needs.
Mr. VLADIMIR ORLOV (Russian Nuclear Specialist): Iranians want to be sure that they do not depend completely on one country, which is Russia, and they want to go independently for their own complete nuclear fuel cycle. It is very clearly seen.
SHUSTER: Experts believe the uranium enrichment facility in Iran is two years away from completion. It would take a year and a half after that to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb. The IAEA's ElBaradei believes there's enough time to convince Iran to adopt additional safeguards so that the IAEA can be certain Iran will not go the nuclear weapons route.
Mr. ELBARADEI: It is important to assure ourself not only in Iran, but every country which has a well-developed nuclear program, that we have all the authority to provide assurances about the peaceful nature of the program, both with regard to declared activities as well as possible undeclared activities.
SHUSTER: Iran could include the IAEA in its final construction decisions for the enrichment plant to maximize the effectiveness of outside inspections and make sure the plant is calibrated to produce only non-bomb-usable uranium fuel. That will be the next test as to whether Iran intends to produce nuclear weapons or not. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Vienna.
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