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Stoking Western alarm, Iran has sharply expanded this enrichment activity - which compares to the 3.5 percent level needed for most nuclear power plants - over the last year to about 15 kg per month.
By August, Iran had produced 190 kg of 20 percent uranium since this work started in early 2010, nearing the amount needed for one bomb. But roughly half had been fed into conversion for making fuel for a Tehran research reactor, or was about to be.
Producing reactor fuel has always been Iran’s stated purpose for refining uranium to 20 percent fissile purity. The West fears Tehran’s ultimate goal is to develop atom bomb capability, a charge it rejects.
IRANIAN NUCLEAR SIGNAL?
“The conversion to oxide is relevant because it demonstrates that there is a civilian purpose for the 20 percent product and because the time for reconversion would have to be factored into the break-out scenario,” said Mark Fitzpatrick at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think-tank.
“It would not be practical for Iran to make a dash to produce weapons starting with enriched uranium that is in oxide form,” he said.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak referred to this development last week when he said Iran had drawn back from its alleged ambition to build a nuclear bomb by using more than a third of its higher-grade uranium for civilian purposes.
As a result, he told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, an immediate crisis was avoided and it “allows contemplating delaying the moment of truth by eight to ten months”, an apparent allusion to a possible Israeli military attack.
Barak - suggesting that talk of Israeli or U.S. strikes may have deterred Iran from building up its 20 percent stockpile further - added however that he believed Tehran was still resolved to make nuclear weapons.