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Updated: February 9, 2010 23:19 IST

Iran begins higher grade enrichment

Atul Aneja
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Iran's ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh. Photo: AP.
Iran's ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh. Photo: AP.

Iran on Tuesday set into motion the process of further refining its stocks of lightly enriched uranium at its atomic facility in Natanz, amid divisions among world powers on a suitable response to the move.

Iran’s atomic energy chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced that a separate section had been earmarked at the Natanz facility, where Iran has so far been producing low enriched uranium refined to a 3.5 per cent level. “We start enrichment at 20 per cent level in a separate section by injecting the 3.5 per cent nuclear fuel to the enrichment system,” the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) quoted Mr. Salehi as saying. He said the arrangements had been made in coordination with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran needs 20 per cent enriched uranium for its research reactor in Tehran to produce medical isotopes for treating cancer patients.

Iran took the unilateral decision after the Americans showed their disinclination to discuss the various modifications that Tehran had been seeking to the nuclear exchange proposal drafted by the IAEA in October. The IAEA, at the end of a conference in Vienna, had proposed a swap between the bulk of Iran’s stocks of low enriched uranium and nuclear fuel rods fabricated by France, using enriched uranium produced by Russia.

Mr. Salehi said Iran had sent two letters to the IAEA, informing it that it was starting the process of 20 per cent enrichment. He added that IAEA inspectors would supervise the enrichment from Tuesday.

The Iranian official clarified that Tehran was not closing its doors to future negotiations on the nuclear exchange proposal.

"Beginning of the 20 per cent enrichment activity does not necessarily mean that the doors were closed on negotiation and interaction in regards to nuclear fuel swap,” he stressed.

There has been a mixed international response to the Iranian decision on unilateral enrichment. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates agreed on Monday that Iran should face “strong sanctions” over its nuclear programme, a French official was quoted as saying.

However, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, speaking at an international security conference in Munich, counselled patience to allow diplomacy to work. Russian national security chief Nikolai Patrushev expressed reservations about the nature of the nuclear programme after the latest announcement from Tehran, but said Moscow was still in favour of pursuing a diplomatic approach, Ria Novosti reported.

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