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IRAN: Good news and bad news in U.N. report on nuclear program

June 6, 2009 | 12:15 pm

R_scott_kemp The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran's nuclear program said the country had boosted its nuclear capacity and supply of enriched uranium about 25% to 30% since February. 

But Princeton University physicist R. Scott Kemp (right), who parsed the report on Friday, found some encouraging signs as well for those who hope that Iran won't develop nuclear weapons, as Tehran insists it won't.

Kemp, in an extensive e-mail to The Times, said the report showed Iran's steady progress in installing its centrifuges, but also said Iran is "suffering several performance problems" that suggest the uranium-enriching machines aren't quite up to snuff. 

"Iran is clearly aware of these problems, and is pursuing four new designs," which are  being tested in Iran's uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. 

"This information suggests that Iran is learning a lot about basic centrifuge design," he said. 

Enriched uranium can be used for fueling a nuclear power plant or, if much more highly refined, provide fissile material for a nuclear bomb. Iran insists its doing the former, while the West suspects it's planning to someday do the latter.

Kemp says he doesn't quite get why Iran continues to install these so-called IR-1 centrifuges, given their performance problems, "One reason may be that none of the new designs have proved reliable, another reason may be that Iran has manufacturing limitations," he said. "The data suggests that Iran wants to build as big a capacity as it can now given the parts and manufacturing capabilities it has instead of pursuing a more commercially viable model."

The good news is that Iran has taken some of its enriched uranium to a fuel manufacturing plant. "If Iran wants to send a positive message, it could begin to convert all its enriched uranium into oxide form, the form needed for fuel," he said  "Doing so would move Iran closer to its goal of making fuel, and also help relieve international tensions. At the moment, Iran is storing its enriched uranium in a form that can be easily upgraded to weapons-grade enrichment levels."

Kemp doesn't see why Iran won't allow international inspectors into its heavy-water research reactor near the town of Arak. "That makes no sense to me," he said.

He also noted that the IAEA continued to condemn Iran for refusing to adopt the additional protocol, which would allow for more intrusive inspections and require greater transparency, and for declining to answer the agency's questions on its alleged past weaponization experiments.

"I''m afraid we are going to see these admonitions on a repeated basis until Iran decides that it wants to move forward."

Hopefully, he said, the politicans will figure all of this out.

"With the Obama administration," he said, "I am confident the door to amicable relations is open. Now both countries just need to take a step forward. Let's see what Iran's election has in store."

-- Borzou Daragahi in Tehran

Photo: R. Scott Kemp. Credit: Princeton University