United Nations nuclear inspectors in Iran have found trace amounts of uranium enriched beyond the highest previously reported levels, according to a diplomat in Vienna who said on Friday that the elevated reading would be addressed in a quarterly report on Iran's nuclear program.

The report, to be delivered to the board of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency later Friday, will include the figure of 27 per cent enrichment, the diplomat said, a potentially alarming development since it moves the purity of Iran's uranium enrichment closer toward bomb-grade material even as a group of six world powers are negotiating with Tehran to shift its nuclear programme in the opposite direction.

Whether the 27 per cent figure represents a trace amount or a substantial quantity appears for the moment to be unknown publicly.

The disclosure came less than a day after Iran and the group of six world powers ended a round of difficult negotiations held in Baghdad on Iran's nuclear programme with no substantive progress, although both sides agreed to meet again in Moscow next month. It was first reported by The Associated Press.

The diplomat in Vienna, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, cautioned that IAEA is investigating the reading and that the spike in purity could be accidental.

Until now, the highest reported level of uranium enrichment for the Iranian programme was 20 per cent. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty makes no restrictions on how pure a nation can make its enriched uranium, only that it cannot mix the civilian work with military applications.

In Iran's case, the IAEA and Western powers have amassed evidence suggesting that Iran has investigated the making of nuclear arms, even as Tehran insists that all its atomic efforts are peaceful.

Most uranium fuel for reactors is enriched to around four per cent purity. Iran began more than two years ago producing fuel enriched to 20 per cent, saying it was for a research reactor in Tehran.

Bomb-grade fuel requires purity of 90 per cent, which, in terms of production efforts, is a comparatively short leap from 20 per cent enrichment. — New York Times News Service

More In: International | News