Middle East

Taking a Peek at Two Iranian Nuclear Sites

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The government of Iran allows a small group of journalists to see two nuclear sites. It's a rare opportunity for outsiders to get a closer look at Iran's nuclear program.


From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

The United States has two main grievances against Iran. First the Bush administration accuses Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq. And Washington says Iran is trying to build atomic weapons.

The Iranians insist that their nuclear technology is for civilian purposes only. Iran has generally kept its nuclear doors closed but it opened them a crack this past week. It invited six Western reporters to tour two of its nuclear facilities.

NPR's Mike Shuster was the only American reporter to go along.

(Soundbite of singing)

MIKE SHUSTER: Just a few miles south of Isfahan, a gentle city with some of Iran's most beautiful historical Islamic buildings, is an industrial complex protected by barbed wire and anti-aircraft guns. It is the uranium conversion facility and even here, or perhaps, especially here, the call to prayer flows out over the plant.

For this place is central to the vision of the future that the leaders of the Islamic republic have for Iran, a nation equipped with advanced nuclear technology to power its economic development, and according to suspicions widespread in the United States and Europe, a nation with nuclear weapons, an ambition Iran's leaders deny.

This is not where uranium enrichment takes place. That's at a gas centrifuge facility at Natan's, a couple of hours drive north from here. The group of journalists had been told they would be taken to Natan's but later the government withdrew the offer.

Inside this plant, a series of complex chemical reactions result in the end product uranium hexafluoride, which is then used to enrich uranium at Natan's. Mohammed(ph), a nuclear engineer, explains that the process here moves through several stages, creating uranium tetrafluoride, or UF4, and then to the key reaction chamber where UF4 is converted to UF6, uranium hexafluoride.

MOHAMMED (Nuclear Engineer): (Through Translator) Four hundred degrees centigrade, the reaction has occurred and the UF4 is converted to UF6.

Unidentified Man: Are you producing UF6 at the moment?

MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) Our process is continuous.

SHUSTER: Iran started production here a little more than a year ago and has now produced more than 200 tons of powdered uranium hexafluoride. The International Atomic Energy Agency must take steps to verify this production. That is done at the end of the process, in a room where the IAEA has installed two cameras, always on and transmitting photos back to the agency's headquarters in Vienna.

MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) This is where the UF6 is discharged to these special containers and each time we want to discharge the UF6, it must be under complete (unintelligible) of IAEA.

SHUSTER: Each container into which the uranium hexafluoride is discharged is bound by a thin metal wire with a coin-sized IAEA metal seal attached.

MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) It's IAEA's metal seal. If I'm to want the (unintelligible), it should break.

SHUSTER: Where the Iranians to divert some of these uranium hexafluoride, say, for some secret uranium enrichment facility, the IAEA's cameras would see it and inspectors would discover the broken seal. So the uranium compound remains in the containers until the inspectors arrive. They are due here shortly.

And on Tuesday, inspectors will visit Arak, where Iran is building a nuclear reactor whose wastes will contain plutonium. Since March, Iranian authorities have prevented the agency from visiting Arak, but they have now reserved that decision. The journalists group was promised an Arak visit as well, but that, too, was withdrawn.

The group was permitted to tour the nuclear plant under construction outside the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr. Actually started by a German company in the 1970s, the Bushehr plant lay mothballed until the Russians came in to complete it in 1996.

(Soundbite of construction)

SHUSTER: Russian and Iranian workers are all over this huge construction site. The only part of the complex that looks closed to finish is the control room. It's also the only spot where there is air-conditioning, a welcome relief from the hundred-degree heat and the 90 percent humidity.

Mr. RASUL MAHMOUDI(ph) (Nuclear Engineer): (Through Translator) And all the data(ph) and (unintelligible) very far come into this room.

SHUSTER: Engineer Rasul Mahmoudi explains that work is not complete in the core of the reactor, a huge chamber encased in both steel and concrete, where the nuclear fuel will be placed. It is now awaiting the delivery of the fuel from Russia.

Mr. MAHMOUDI: (Through Translator) And this is the reactor phase. (Unintelligible) The equipment you see around it is being installed inside the reactor (unintelligible).

SHUSTER: Earlier this year, Iran declared that the delivery of the nuclear fuel was imminent and that the work on the plant would be finished by this fall.

But a disagreement broke out between Moscow and Tehran with Russia delaying work on the plant because it said Iran was late with its payments. Iran's government has denied this. In any event, the pit looks very unfinished.

Engineer Mahmoudi declined to say how much work might be left.

Mr. MAHMOUDI: (Through Translator) Everyone has his own estimation.

SHUSTER: What's yours?

Mr. MAHMOUDI: (Through Translator) I've not estimated it yet.

SHUSTER: Just a few days ago, the Russians announced there would be further delays in the delivery of the nuclear fuel and work on the Bushehr nuclear power plant cannot be completed before the fall of 2008. The Bushehr plant is designed to run on nuclear fuel only supplied by Russia and Russia is supposed to take back the waste when the fuel is spent.

Iran's national security adviser, Ali Larijani, said this is why Iran is so intent on possessing the entire nuclear fuel cycle including the capacity to enrich uranium because Tehran cannot rely on anyone from outside to supply it.

Dr. ALI LARIJANI (National Security Adviser, Iran): (Through Translator) The important point for us is to have the necessary capacity. Should there be a decision not to supply us with the needed fuel, we would be able to come up with our own needs.

SHUSTER: Iranian leaders suspect that Moscow has given in to pressure from the United States to block Iran's nuclear program. One senior Iranian official with extensive knowledge of the country's nuclear program said he does not believe Russia will ever deliver the nuclear fuel.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Bushehr.

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