TEHRAN, Iran—Iran claimed Monday that it will produce fuel for a research reactor that makes medical isotopes within a year, a project likely to add to Western concerns about the country's nuclear ambitions.
Iran has justified its decision to enrich uranium to higher levels by saying it would be part of the process to create fuel for its research reactor after a deal meant to provide such fuel from abroad fell apart earlier this year. The U.S. and its allies imposed sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment, which the West suspects might be geared toward producing weapons. Iran insists its intentions are peaceful.
Iran has a well-established program to produce low-enriched uranium up to the 3.5 percent level needed to fuel a reactor to produce electricity. The country began in February enriching to near 20 percent through a separate, small-scale program using low-enriched feedstock.
Although Tehran says all of its activities are geared solely toward producing nuclear fuel, it is much easier to produce weapons-grade uranium for use in nuclear warheads from 20 percent material than from low-enriched uranium. Still 20 percent is far short of the 95 percent plus enriched uranium needed for an atomic weapon.
Converting 20 percent enriched uranium into fuel rods requires sophisticated technology that Iran claims it possesses. But Western experts doubt Iran can do it.
Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran will continue to enrich uranium to the level of 20 percent to produce fuel for the reactor in the capital Tehran, the official IRNA news agency reported Monday.
"From today, we will produce the complete fuel required for the Tehran research reactor within one year," Salehi was quoted by IRNA as saying.
Iran says its aging 5-megawatt U.S.-made research reactor is still operating but will run out of fuel within a year or two. Salehi did not say how much fuel would be enough to keep it running, but he said the country has produced 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of 20 percent enriched uranium since it began in February.
Salehi, who is also the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Iran has every right to enrich uranium to 20 percent or at any other level.
"It is Iran's right to enrich uranium not only to the level of 20 percent but also to any level for peaceful affairs," he said.
Salehi also said Tehran has begun to design a reactor similar to that of the Tehran research reactor in order to be able to produce medical radioisotopes for patients but didn't elaborate.
Also Monday, a senior nuclear official said Iran will build its first experimental nuclear fusion reactor by 2020, something that has yet to be achieved by any nation.
Nuclear fusion, the process powering the sun and stars, has so far only been mastered as a weapon, producing the thermonuclear explosions of hydrogen bombs. It has never been harnessed for power generation.
Asghar Sediqzadeh, head of the fusion research center, was quoted by the semi-official ISNA news agency as saying that 100 new experts will be hired soon to join others in the national project.
Iran's Atomic Energy Organization of Iran began studies on the experimental nuclear fusion reactor in July. Tehran is not known to have carried out anything but basic fusion research, but it does have a nuclear fission program that the U.S. and its allies believe is a front to build weapons -- a charge Tehran denies.
"Our objective is to design and build at least one full-Iranian indigenous nuclear fusion experimental reactor," Sediqzadeh was quoted by ISNA as saying. "We intend to build the reactor within a maximum of the next 10 years."
Sediqzadeh said his center was in the stage of feasibility studies, training experts and paving the way for construction of the reactor.
He said his center has already hired 36 experts and that 100 more experts will be hired soon for this purpose. Finally, he said, 200 experts will work at the experimental nuclear fusion reactor.
Iranian authorities say it will take two years for Iran to complete studies and then start designing and building the reactor.
The United States, the European Union, China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea signed an accord in 2006 to build a $12.8 billion experimental fusion reactor at Cadarache, southern France, aimed at revolutionizing global energy use for future generations.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, members have said no single country can afford the immense investment needed to move the science forward.