05/19/2006, 00.00
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Uranium gas used in Iranian nuclear facilities from China

Tehran used stocks of high-quality uranium gas from China in order to hasten a breakthrough in enrichment, but Western experts say the amount of enriched uranium Iran can produce is too small for an atomic bomb.

Vienna (AsiaNews) – Iran had used high-quality uranium (hexafluoride – UF6) gas supplied by China to hasten a breakthrough in enrichment for a programme the West fears could be hiding nuclear weapons development, a diplomat in Vienna with access to intelligence sources told AFP. The Iranians chose the Chinese feedstock gas "because of its quality, which ensures a better (uranium) enrichment process," he said.

Iran wanted to announce it had done uranium enrichment and was "in a hurry" to present the UN Security Council with a fait accompli before the international body could move against them to halt their programme after the April 28 deadline. Enrichment is used to generate fuel for nuclear power reactors but can also produce the raw material for atomic bombs.

Intelligence sources said that the Iranians did not use their own UF6 because it is believed to contain contaminants that can cause centrifuges to crash. Instead, they want to be completely sure they could turn out enriched uranium in time.

Non-proliferation analyst David Albright said that the Iranians have not yet mastered enrichment and still "have a lot of tests to do".

Since September when the first announcement was made, they have made some 110 tons of the gas, according to a report of the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If the entire quantity were enriched, it would yield enough material for about 20 atom bombs.

Iran began feeding UF6 gas into centrifuges in February, thus beginning the enrichment process.

On April 11, Tehran announced that it had actually made enriched uranium but only to levels appropriate for reactor fuel, not for weapons.

Iran had made only "dozens of grams" of enriched uranium, far from the 15-25 kilograms (30-55 pounds) needed to make a nuclear bomb.

"It is a technological success, but it is politically that it is very important," the diplomat in Vienna said.

For Albright, "Iran has barely operated its cascade. It needs to operate the cascade much longer and with much greater output".

China began building a conversion facility in Isfahan in the 1990s to make UF6 and supplied Iran then with about a tonne of the gas but broke the contract in 1997 under US pressure.

Iran completed the facility using Chinese designs.

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