VIENNA Feb 10 Iran has told nuclear inspectors
it will begin higher-grade uranium enrichment within days after
preparations to do so carried out since Monday, according to a
confidential U.N. memo obtained by Reuters.
Tehran had announced on Tuesday that it begun refining
uranium to 20 percent purity, but Wednesday's memo said: "We
were told that it was expected the facility would begin to
produce up to 20 percent (uranium) within a few days."
The memo from International Atomic Energy Agency chief
Yukiya Amano said Iran had recalibrated 164 centrifuges, a small
fraction of its thousands of enrichment machines, for
higher-scale enrichment at its Natanz pilot plant.
Amano suggested he was concerned by a lack of advance notice
about the move, which Western powers say will raise suspicions
Iran is aiming to advance to the 90 percent threshold of
enrichment suitable for atomic bombs, something it denies.
He said Iran notified the IAEA of the plan on Monday and the
IAEA quickly asked Iran not to launch it before inspectors could
adjust their monitoring procedures, as well as get clarification
on the expected duration of the new programme and technical
"On Wednesday, when agency inspectors arrived at the pilot
plant, they were informed that Iran had begun to feed the
low-enriched uranium into one cascade (network of centrifuges
the previous evening for (test) purposes," the memo said.
A senior diplomat familiar with IAEA operations told
Reuters: "The agency should have been alerted earlier. It's an
alarming trend that may only get worse. It looks like the
confrontation (with the West) will be increasing."
Iran says the ramp-up of enrichment is meant only to yield
fuel to keep a Tehran nuclear medicine reactor running.
Earlier on Wednesday, Iran's nuclear energy chief said it
believed a nuclear fuel exchange with the West was still
possible, a day after the Islamic Republic's move to escalate
enrichment drew a U.S. warning of harsher sanctions soon.
Ali Akbar Salehi said if swap details could be agreed Iran
would stop producing 20 percent pure uranium itself.
But he reiterated Iran's demand for a simultaneous fuel swap
on its soil -- a likely non-starter for Western powers who want
Tehran to send most of its low-enriched uranium, potential atom
bomb material, abroad before it gets higher-grade fuel for a
medical research reactor in return.
(Reporting by Mark Heinrich)