By Paul Richter and Emily Alpert, Tribune Washington Bureau –
VIENNA — The U.N. atomic watchdog agency has found evidence at an underground bunker in Iran that may mean scientists there have moved closer to enriching uranium to the level needed to produce nuclear weapons.
Iran, for its part, claims the slightly more highly enriched uranium was the result of a technical glitch, according to a restricted report from the International Atomic Energy Agency obtained by the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau.
Experts said the discovery of traces of uranium enriched up to 27 percent at the Fordow facility near the holy city of Qom is above Iran’s previously highest-known enrichment grade, about 20 percent, but may be the result of improper calibration when the centrifuges were first used.
Uranium must be enriched to roughly 90 percent in order to make a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes, but has been enriching uranium to higher levels than experts believe is necessary, though still far below the level needed for weapon-grade fuel.
“It is not necessarily a sign that Iran is enriching to levels beyond what it has declared,” a diplomat in Vienna said, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue. Higher-than-expected enrichment has been found in the past at the Natanz facility in Iran, the diplomat said.
The watchdog agency is seeking more details to assess Iran’s explanation that the more highly enriched uranium came about as a result of a technical glitch, the restricted report said.
The development, which raised alarms in Washington and elsewhere, came a day after Iranian officials concluded two days of sometimes-contentious talks in Baghdad with negotiators from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. The negotiators failed to reach a clear path toward resolving the international standoff over Iran’s nuclear development program, but agreed to meet again.
Chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman flew to Israel after the Baghdad sessions to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials, who fear Iran is using the negotiations — which are scheduled to resume June 18 in Moscow — to move ever closer to nuclear weapons capability.