VIENNA, Austria – U.N. inspectors found traces of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium at an Iranian nuclear facility, a report by the U.N. nuclear agency says. Iran said Tuesday the traces came with equipment purchased abroad decades ago.
The find heightened concerns that Tehran may be running a secret nuclear weapons program.
Agency inspectors found “particles” of highly enriched uranium that could be used in a weapons program at the facility at Natanz, said the report prepared for a meeting of the U.N. agency’s board Sept. 8 in Vienna. Contents of the report were made known to The Associated Press by diplomats who requested anonymity.
The United States has accused Iran of developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty barring the spread of atomic weapons.
Iran has denied the allegations, insisting its programs are devoted only to generating electricity.
Ali-Akbar Salehi, Tehran’s ambassador to the IAEA, said the equipment was “contaminated” with enriched uranium before it was purchased by Iran.
Salehi told AP the equipment in question was “brought many years ago from intermediaries” and so it was impossible to name the countries of origin.
Separately, Salehi also said Iran was ready to negotiate an IAEA request that it sign an additional agreement throwing open its nuclear programs to more intrusive inspections.
Salehi said the offer, made Monday, indicates “for the first time … that the government of Iran is ready to enter negotiations into the additional protocol.”
He said talks would likely begin after two IAEA meetings next month; one on Sept. 8 by the agency’s board of governors on the Iran report and another the week after when the full IAEA assembly convenes.
IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky called Iran’s overture “a positive step.”
Suspicion about Iran’s nuclear program prompted Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the Vienna-based IAEA, to tour Iran’s nuclear facilities in February. The visit was intended to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program was limited to peaceful, civilian purposes and that the facilities were safe.
ElBaradei’s tour included a visit to the incomplete nuclear plant in Natanz, about 320 miles south of Tehran. At the time, diplomats said he was taken aback by the advanced stage of a project using hundreds of centrifuges to enrich uranium.
ElBaradei, in advance comments to be published Thursday by the German news magazine Stern, said the traces were found on the centrifuges at Natanz, adding “This worries us greatly.”
Salehi, Iran’s chief IAEA delegate, said the centrifuges in question were being used only to produce low enriched uranium used as fuel for power plants.
Gwozdecky said the agency’s inspectors had visited Iran five times since June.
“In particular, we have visited a number of new sites, have the results of previously taken environmental samples and taken many more new samples, and are in receipt of much new information from the Iranian authorities,” he said.
Analyzing the new material would take “weeks or months,” he added.
In July, ElBaradei pressed Iran for “substantial progress without delay” in clarifying aspects of its nuclear program and in signing an agreement that would let U.N. inspectors conduct in-depth and comprehensive checks of Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
At that time, he denied reports that agency inspectors found enriched uranium in samples taken recently in Iran, calling it “pure speculation at this stage.”
Iran is building, with Russian help, its first nuclear reactor at Bushehr, on the shore of the Persian Gulf. It has a capacity of 1,000 megawatts and should be completed next year.
Iran’s second nuclear reactor will have a capacity of 1,000 megawatts and the government is beginning feasibility studies for a 5,000 megawatt reactor, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported this month.