Iran expects to produce its first batch of higher enriched uranium within a few days but its effort is modest, using only a small amount of feedstock and a fraction of its capacities, according to a confidential document, the Associated Press reported overnight Wednesday.
The internal International Atomic Energy Agency document was significant in being the first glimpse at Iran's plan to enrich uranium to 20 percent that did not rely on statements from Iranian officials.
Iran said it wants to enrich only up to 20 percent — substantially below the 90 percent-plus level used in the fissile core of nuclear warheads — as a part of a plan to fuel its research reactor that provides medical isotopes to hundreds of thousands of Iranians undergoing cancer treatment.
But the West has said Teheran is not capable of turning the material into the fuel rods needed by the reactor. Instead it fears that Iran wants to enrich the uranium to make nuclear weapons.
Iran has denied such aspirations. But its move is viewed with concern internationally because it would create material that could then be processed into weapons-grade uranium more quickly and with less effort than Iran's present stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium.
On Wednesday, Iranian Vice President Ail Akhbar Salehi said the process of higher enrichment was going smoothly, a day after Iranian officials announced a start of the operation, but gave no details on the scope of the new activities. The restricted IAEA document, however, indicated that, for now at least, they were modest in scale.
"It should be noted that there is currently only one cascade ... that is capable of enriching" up to 20 percent, said the document. A cascade is 164 centrifuges hooked up in series that spin and re-spin uranium gas to the required enrichment level.
The document, relying on onsite reports from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, also cited Iranian experts at the enrichment site at Natanz as saying that only about 10 kilograms — 22 pounds — of low enriched uranium had been fed into the cascade for further enrichment.
Agency inspectors were told Wednesday "that it was expected that the facility would begin to produce up to 20 percent enriched ... (uranium) within a few days," said the one-page document.
Iran has over 8,000 centrifuges at its disposal, although not all are working. It has amassed about 1.8 tons of low-enriched uranium.
Iran's decision to enrich to higher levels have led to a spike in concerns about nuclear arms — and led Washington on Wednesday to impose new sanctions on several affiliates of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps over their alleged involvement in producing and spreading weapons of mass destruction.
The US Treasury Department announced that it would freeze assets in US jurisdictions of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Rostam Qasemi and four subsidiaries of a construction firm he commands, which was hit with US sanctions in 2007.
The sanctions expanded existing US unilateral penalties against elements of the Guard Corps, which Western intelligence believes has been spearheading Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
David Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and
International Security said higher enrichment means Iran is getting a
step closer to the ability to make nuclear weapons.
"Iran is slowly expanding its breakout capability," Albright said in an
e-mail to the AP. He said achieving the 20-percent level "would be
going most of the rest of the way to weapon-grade uranium."