TEHRAN, Iran – Iran confirmed Monday that it converted 37 tons of raw uranium into gas, its first acknowledgment of advances made in the production process for enriched uranium before it formally suspended nuclear activity in November under international pressure.
The announcement, which means Tehran is in a position to quickly start enriching uranium if it lifts the suspension, comes as European negotiators are trying to seal an agreement to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program does not produce weapons.
Enriched uranium is useful in the generation of electricity, which is permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it also can be turned into nuclear weapons. Iran insists its program has only peaceful purposes, while the U.S. government says Tehran wants to obtain atomic arms.
Iran processed the uranium ore concentrate into UF-4 gas before halting enrichment-related activities, Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told the Associated Press. If processed further into UF-6 gas, the material could be fed into centrifuges and enriched.
“We converted all the 37 tons of uranium concentrate known as yellowcake into UF-4 at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility before we suspended work there,” Saeedi said.
France, Britain and Germany, which are negotiating on behalf of the European Union, had agreed in talks ahead of the November suspension that the Islamic Republic could finish processing the 37 tons of raw uranium into gas.
But Saeedi’s comments were the first confirmation that the project had been completed and came as talks with the Europeans have deadlocked, with the EU powers pressing for a complete end to Iran’s enrichment program in return for economic incentives
Experts say when fully processed, the 37 tons of yellowcake could theoretically yield more than 200 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, enough to make five crude nuclear weapons.
To avoid referral to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions, Iran agreed to suspend actual enrichment at its Natanz plant in 2003. It then suspended other uranium enrichment-related activities – including the conversion of yellowcake into gas and the building of centrifuges – in late 2004 to bolster international confidence.
To show its dissatisfaction with lack of progress in the talks with Europe, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Sunday that Iran decided to resume some uranium reprocessing activities. Saeedi said that might happen in two or three days.