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. Iran makes uranium powder but not violating nuclear freeze - diplomats
VIENNA (AFP) Dec 21, 2004
Iran is making a uranium powder that is a key first step in the enrichment process that can make nuclear weapons but is not in violation of a nuclear freeze agreed with the EU, diplomats said Tuesday.

Iran is finishing for technical reasons sensitive nuclear activities it started before the freeze began November 22, with the process going slowly due to mechanical problems but expected to be finished by February, diplomats said.

Concern over possible violations is high as Iran and the European Union opened talks in Brussels on December 13 on giving Tehran trade, technology and security rewards in return for its freeze of uranium enrichment.

The United States is warily watching the freeze and the Iran-EU negotiations, as it charges that Iran is using the suspension to gain time to secretly develop nuclear weapons and would like to see Tehran brought before the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.

Enrichment makes fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but also, in highly refined form, the explosive core of atomic bombs.

In Tehran, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator said Tuesday it was important for the United States to work with the EU over Tehran's atomic activities.

Hossein Moussavian, quoted by the official IRNA news agency, did not rule out future talks with Washington, despite non-existant diplomatic relations since 1979.

"From our point of view, it is important that the Americans and Europeans interact in this process," Moussavian was reported as saying.

Making the powder, uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), is as far as Iran can go in enrichment, according to the agreement reached last month with EU negotiators Britain, France and Germany and endorsed by the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

UF4 is the precursor to UF6 gas that is fed into high-spinning centrifuges in order to filter out enriched uranium.

Iran caused an uproar last month when it pushed ahead with the processing of 37 tons of the uranium ore known as yellowcake into UF6 at its uranium conversion plant in Isfahan in last-minute activity ahead of striking the agreement with the European trio.

A European diplomat called this up-to-the-wire move as "not very helpful," and leading to doubts about Iran's intentions and the future of the suspension deal.

The 37 tons of yellowcake could make enough highly enriched uranium for some three atomic bombs, experts said, but Iran processed much less than that.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran had produced ahead of the November 22 start of the freeze "3.5 tonnes of UF6 gas," not enough to make enough enriched uranium for even one bomb.

There are so far no reports of Iran continuing to produce UF6 gas, which is a significant step further in the enrichment process from UF4.

Iran is merely processing what remains of the 37 tons of yellowcake it had got under the deadline into the Isfahan plant, diplomats said.

"If the stuff was in there before the suspension, that's not a problem," a diplomat close to the Iran-EU deal said, adding that if the Iranians were delaying that would be "against the spirit of the agreement" but not much more.

The IAEA, which is monitoring Iran's enrichment suspension, had reported last month that Tehran indicated it would bring material at Isfahan into a "safe, secure and stable state not beyond UF4" and Iran had the right to do this, the diplomat said.

Iran was allowed to finish converting the 37 tons since it is otherwise difficult to clear the conversion machines, which are a mass of tubes and compartments, another diplomat told AFP.

The diplomat said there have apparently been "some technical problems with the plant" which have slowed down Iran's effort to finish processing the yellowcake.

"It may take weeks to finish this," a Western diplomat close to the IAEA said, adding that the last batch of UF4 is expected to be "spit out" by February 5.

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