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Iranian Nuke Still One To Three Years Away, Says Expert

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (center) looks on as scientists unveil a fuel rod at the Tehran Research Reactor.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (center) looks on as scientists unveil a fuel rod at the Tehran Research Reactor.

Iran on announced on February 15 that it has inserted its first domestically produced nuclear fuel rods into a reactor in Tehran. Tehran also announced that it activated a new generation of centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear facility.

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz speaks with nuclear physicist Frank Barnaby, from the Oxford Research Group, about what the advances reveal regarding Iran's uranium enrichment abilities, which Western countries allege are aimed at secretly building a nuclear weapon.

RFE/RL: What is the significance of Iran's ability to domestically produce its own nuclear fuel rods?

Frank Barnaby: It means that [Iran] is independent of outside suppliers, obviously. We are talking about fuel rods for the research reactor in Tehran, which they say will be used for isotopes for medical use.

We're not talking about the Bushehr nuclear power reactor which the Russians built and which the Russians are providing the fuel for.

So it's enriched uranium for their smaller research reactor. But the uranium is enriched to 20 percent, rather than 3.5 percent for the power reactor. So it is quite an advance.

RFE/RL: How much closer does this development bring Iran to being technically capable of producing a nuclear weapon if they chose to do so?

Barnaby: They're not there yet, but they've demonstrated an ability to tackle the technology to enrich uranium.

British Nuclear Physicist Frank Barnaby

British Nuclear Physicist Frank Barnaby

It would take them some time. I mean, they are still enough time away to allow negotiations to take place.

I'm not suggesting that tomorrow they'll have a nuclear weapon. I mean, I think they are still maybe one, two or three years away from being able to have enough [highly enriched] material to produce a nuclear weapon.

After all, they need 20 kilograms, at least, per nuclear weapon -- which is quite a lot.

RFE/RL: What technical hurdles would Iran still need to overcome to be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear bomb?

Barnaby: For a weapon, you really need more than 90 percent enriched uranium-235. So 20 percent is quite a way down.

But the energy required to get from 20 percent to 90 percent is far less than the energy required to get from the natural enrichment to 20 percent. If you've got to 20 terms of energy -- [you're] almost there, really.

More enrichment is required. But not that much more. So it is really quite a move toward the enrichment they would need for a nuclear weapon. It is significant. Very significant.

RFE/RL: Where is Iran getting its enriched uranium from to make these fuel rods for the Tehran research reactor? Is it connected with the development of a new type of centrifuge at the Natanz nuclear facility that they announced on February 15?

Barnaby: They've enriched uranium at Natanz. We know they are doing that. No question about that. But then they have to take the enriched uranium, which is a gaseous form, and turn it into a solid fuel rod to put into the reactor.

So they have to chemically convert it to uranium dioxide and then make that into a solid, cylindrical fuel element. [Also], they've perfected another sort of centrifuge.

The difference will be the material the centrifuge is made from. It won't be steel. It will probably be carbon fiber, which enables them to spin very much faster and therefore more effectively enrich uranium.

That is a significant step, but hardly surprising. We've been expecting that for some time.

RFE/RL: Will these new centrifuges allow Iran to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium more quickly than your estimate of one to three years?

Barnaby: They are still years away. What the new centrifuges will do will be to make the enrichment more efficient.

So it is true that if you then recycle the uranium through the centrifuge plant again using these new centrifuges, you can do more in a given time.

But [my estimate of] one to three years for a bomb takes that into account. It would be scaremongering to suggest that the Iranians could make a [nuclear] bomb in less than a year or two.