TEHRAN, Iran – Iran has inaugurated a plant for processing uranium ore into gas, a step prior to enrichment of uranium, in the central city of Isfahan, Iranian nuclear officials said Saturday.
The Uranium Conversion Facility began operation “some time ago,” a senior official at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said on condition of anonymity.
The nuclear facility in Isfahan, 250 miles south of Tehran, converts uranium ore into gas, which is destined for enrichment at a nuclear plant in Natanz. Iran suspended enrichment last year under strong international pressure over the aims and dimensions of its nuclear program.
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are scheduled to arrive in Iran later Saturday.
The United States strongly suspects Iran has a secret atomic weapons program, but Tehran insists its nuclear program if only for power generation.
The International Atomic Energy Agency recently rebuked Iran for failing to disclose certain aspects of its nuclear development, as it is obliged to do under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Washington has called for Iran to suspend all uranium-related activity. But Iran has repeatedly said its suspension is temporary and enrichment will resume.
The Atomic Energy Organization official said the inspectors would visit the conversion facility in Isfahan as well as the enrichment plant in Natanz, 200 miles south of Tehran.
Mohammed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said Iran needs to take many steps before the U.N. agency can give its nuclear program a clean bill of health.
Suspicions about Iran’s program heightened last year when the IAEA revealed that its inspectors found radioactive particles that had been enriched to weapons-grade level — higher than what Iran requires for fuel for a nuclear reactor.
Iran said the particles came from imported equipment.
ElBaradei, who plans to visit Iran early next month to encourage it to be more transparent, hopes to present an assessment of Iran’s nuclear activities to the IAEA board of governors in June.
Iran has repeatedly denied concealing any illegal nuclear activity. After the IAEA rebuked it this month, the Tehran government barred the inspectors for two weeks. Their scheduled return Saturday will be their first visit since then.