Iranian Openness May Enhance Nuke Safety ; A Report This Week from the UN's Nuclear Watchdog Reveals That Iran Acknowledges a Uranium Enrichment Program

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Iran is moving quickly to defuse Western concern about its nuclear ambitions, as the United Nations' atomic watchdog agency released a critical confidential report, leaked widely this week, detailing Iran's 18-year clandestine uranium enrichment program.

While UN inspectors found "no evidence ... related to a nuclear weapons program," Iran was chastised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for concealing "many aspects" of its nuclear effort that deal with the "most sensitive aspects" of the nuclear fuel cycle.

As it prepares for a Nov. 20 meeting of its Board of Governors on Iran, the IAEA said it welcomed decisions by the Islamic Republic this week to halt all uranium enrichment efforts and accept snap inspections by adopting the Additional Protocol of the Nonproliferation Treaty.

Iran's new openness could shed light on a nuclear program that has unsettled international observers because of its secrecy. It may also yield a less obvious advantage: Increased safety expertise from abroad that could curb the risks of a nuclear accident.

In its report, the agency said it required a "particularly robust verification system," and that, "given Iran's past pattern of concealment, it will take some time" to conclude the peaceful nature of the programs.

Striving to conform with an Oct. 31 ultimatum set to come clean on its ambitions, Iran acknowledged a centrifuge and laser uranium enrichment program, as well as the separation of small amounts of plutonium.

"The failures that Iran has been reproached for are minor, and only on the order of a gram or milligram," Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, was quoted as saying on state television. Though some test results are still out, experts say that traces of highly enriched uranium found in Iran over the summer were "molecular."

With the United States and European governments focused on trying to slow Iran's alleged attempt to build a bomb, safety issues have been largely overlooked.

That reluctance is likely to ease after Iran's deal in Octoberwith the European foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany which offered eventual access to civilian nuclear technology and expertise, in exchange for Iran coming clean about nuclear weapons issues.

Najmedin Meshkati, a nuclear expert at the University of Southern California, says the deal could bring Iran's nuclear program in from the cold when it comes to safety issues. Referring to the agreement promising "longer-term cooperation," Meshkati said: "I hope that it means state-of-the-art nuclear safety technology too."

The risks of isolation and secrecy have already manifested themselves, according to IAEA officials who asked not to be identified. They detail two incidents at a small five-megawatt research reactor in Tehran.

In one case in 2001, at least two control rods became stuck, but the reactor shut down properly without any release of radioactivity, the IAEA sources say.

And earlier this year, a similar incident occurred, prompting the Iranian authorities to ask for assistance from the IAEA to resolve the problem. The IAEA recommended replacing the aging stainless steel rods and buying new instrumentation for the reactor, which was supplied to Iran by a US firm in 1967. …


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