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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Testers in Iran find plutonium traces

(11-15) 04:00 PST Tehran -- Iran's president said Tuesday that his country's nuclear program is nearing an important milestone, even as international atomic inspectors reported that they have found unexplained traces of plutonium and that Tehran continues to be so uncooperative in answering questions that they have been unable to confirm earlier claims of progress.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statement that Iran hopes soon to master the nuclear fuel cycle came as world powers, suspicious that Iran is seeking the means to make nuclear weapons, are trying to agree on a regimen of sanctions. Iran says it wants only to fuel reactors and generate electricity.

"I hope we can have our celebration of Iran's full nuclearization this year," Ahmadinejad said during a news conference in Tehran, apparently referring to a program that could do everything from extracting uranium ore from the ground to enriching it into reactor fuel. Iran's calendar ends in March.

In its latest report on the Iranian nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Vienna, said Tehran is moving ahead with its efforts to purify uranium while refusing to answer basic questions about its atomic program.

For instance, the report said Iran has failed to provide full access to records needed to confirm its claims in June of having enriched uranium to a level of 5 percent, which is suitable for reactors.

The report also said inspectors have made no progress in resolving the origin of previously discovered traces of highly enriched uranium, which can fuel atomic bombs. In September, the agency disclosed the discovery of the particles on a container from a waste storage site at Karaj, not far from Tehran, but withheld judgment about where the material came from and whether it could be linked to a secret nuclear-weapons program.

Finally, the report said inspectors recently have found traces of yet another unexplained particle -- plutonium -- on samples from containers at Karaj and is assessing a response from Tehran about its origin. Plutonium, like uranium, can fuel nuclear weapons.

"Unless Iran addresses the long outstanding verification issues," the report concluded, the atomic agency "will remain unable to make further progress in its efforts to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities."

The report was sent to the 35 countries on the atomic agency's decision-making board before its regularly scheduled quarterly session in Vienna next week, on Nov. 23 and 24. It was distributed on a confidential basis Tuesday but was quickly made available to reporters.

In Tehran, Ahmadinejad once again defied international demands to suspend uranium enrichment and reiterated Iran's ultimate enrichment goal -- to expand its program to an industrial level with 60,000 centrifuges.

In a news conference with Iranian journalists, he also brushed off suggestions by other senior authorities that Iran might suspend the reactor-fuel program, saying there is no way Iran will turn back.

Ahmadinejad said Iran had prepared itself to confront possible sanctions. "Nothing has been passed against Iran yet, but we are ready for any condition," he said.
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