TEHRAN // Four UN nuclear monitors will begin their inspection of Iran's second uranium-enrichment plant today while the international community awaits the country's response to a proposal for conversion of its low-enriched uranium to reactor-grade fuel outside the country. Iran announced the existence of the new nuclear facility, built in the mountains at Fordu, about 100km from the holy city of Qom, on September 21. The announcement set off a new round of threats of sanctions by the West, led by the United States, and defiance by Iran that culminated in a proposal on Tuesday by Mohamed ElBaradei, the executive director of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAED).
"The inspection is totally normal, like other IAEA inspections" of Iran's nuclear facilities, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran's representative to the IAEA, was quoted by the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) as saying. On Friday, the day of a deadline set by Mr ElBaradei, Iran announced it needed until the middle of this week to consider his proposal, which would see Iran send its low-enriched uranium to a third country for enrichment to 19.75 per cent, the level at which Iran could then power a medical research reactor.
The deal was proposed during talks between Iran and representatives of the IAEA, the United States, Russia and France in Vienna on Tuesday. The United States, Russia and France have already announced their agreement with the proposed deal. "Iran is working and elaborating on all details of the IAEA proposal about the supply of fuel for the Tehran research reactor from technical aspects and all other dimensions," Mr Soltanieh was quoted by Iran's Press TV as saying.
"This is a humanitarian project and merely for supplying fuel to a reactor that produces isotopes and radio medicine [for use in hospitals]. Iran prefers to purchase this kind of fuel while having the capability to produce 19.75 per cent enriched fuel for the Tehran reactor considering its own peaceful nuclear technology," Mr Soltanieh was quoted as saying by ISNA. The reactor was built by a US company before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It has been operating with 19.75 per cent enriched uranium purchased from Argentina for nearly two decades, but its fuel is expected to run out in about two years.
Critics of the plan to transfer about 1,200kg of Iran's low-enriched uranium - about 80 per cent of the total existing supplies - to another country for enrichment say Iran would lose control of its supplies if that country, most probably Russia, fails to carry out its obligations. Over the past four years, Iran has produced about 1,500kg of 3.5 per cent enriched uranium at its Natanz plant in defiance of four UN Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear activities.
Iran needs its low-enriched reactor-grade uranium for use in its 40MW and 360MW nuclear power plants so it would be better off keeping its 3.5 per cent enriched uranium and purchasing 19.75 per cent enriched uranium from other countries, Allaedin Boroujerdi, conservative head of parliament's national security and foreign policy committee was quoted by ISNA as saying yesterday. "Since Iran has to procure fuel for the Tehran reactor within a limited time span it should naturally do so more cautiously and after getting greater guarantees [from providers]," he said.
According to the proposal, Iran's low-enriched uranium would be shipped to Russia for further enrichment after which it would be inserted into fuel rods in France. Some critics say there is little guarantee that countries involved in enriching Iran's uranium supply would not delay the process of delivery. Instead of shipping the existing supply for further enrichment, they say, Iran should be allowed to buy the fuel needed for its Tehran reactor.
In defence of this view, Reza Amrollahi, a former head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, pointed out that France has for three decades refused to deliver 50 tonnes of paid-for nuclear fuel to Iran. "Why should we give all our enriched uranium and why should we wait two years to get only about 30 kilograms of fuel - And what guarantee is there that we will be able to get the 20 per cent enriched fuel [at last]," Mr Amrollahi was quoted by Iranian Labour News Agency as saying. "Isn't it time they returned a small part of the fuel [purchased by Iran from France and Germany more than three decades ago] for use in the Tehran research reactor which is only good for producing radio-medicine?" he said.