Iran's Nuclear Power Plant Under Tighter U.S. Watch

An employee bicycles past the reactor structure of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant in October 2010.. The United States stepped up surveillance of the facility after fuel rods were removed in October, the Wall Street Journal reported (AP Photo/Mehr News Agency).
An employee bicycles past the reactor structure of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant in October 2010.. The United States stepped up surveillance of the facility after fuel rods were removed in October, the Wall Street Journal reported (AP Photo/Mehr News Agency).

Iran's recent removal of fuel from its Bushehr atomic power plant stirred fears over the nation's protection of bomb-usable plutonium and prompted what U.S. government personnel described as a major increase in U.S. reconnaissance operations targeting the facility, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday.

Atomic rods withdrawn from the site in October contained between 22 and 220 pounds of plutonium, a quantity capable with additional refinement of powering up to two dozen nuclear armaments, according to nongovernmental atomic specialists. Nuclear facilities might typically switch out such reactor material after as little as one year, but the Russian atomic energy firm Rosatom indicated the Bushehr facility had only become fully active in August.

The fuel withdrawal, reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency on Oct. 15, topped a list of Bushehr developments that generated worries in the United States prior to the boost in monitoring, the insiders said. Iran's expanding uranium refinement operations are generally seen in Washington as a greater danger than its the Bushehr plant, though both sites generate substances relevant in the potential preparation of a nuclear bomb. Tehran maintains its atomic efforts are strictly peaceful.

Defense Department-controlled unmanned aerial vehicles have contributed to the monitoring effort, which the insiders said had yielded pictures and auditory correspondence from the Bushehr plant. Such pilotless aircraft can record material including mobile telephone conversations and machine-aided exchanges, but government insiders refused to disclose the nature of data gathered from the facility.

The United States might have been pursuing information on the Bushehr facility with a drone targeted on Nov. 1 by Iranian military aircraft, Tehran has indicated. U.S. government insiders said the device was not targeting the plant during the mission, though it was carrying out monitoring activities.

Tehran does not appear to be pushing to separate bomb-capable plutonium from the fuel, according to Obama insiders and atomic analysts outside the government. Iran seems to lack any facility capable of carrying out the task, the U.N. nuclear watchdog has indicated.

Once it obtains the technological prerequisites, though, Tehran might attempt fuel separation in an armed conflict with Western powers or during some other emergency, according to analysts.

Institute for Science and International Security head David Albright said "the proliferation threat at Bushehr doesn't seem imminent. But it raises questions about what could happen if there's a conflict."

Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Fereidoun Abbasi said equipment left mistakenly inside the reactor had prompted the fuel's removal, the Associated Press quoted multiple Iranian media publications as saying on Sunday. Rosatom on Friday dismissed a similar explanation as untrue, instead describing the atomic material's withdrawal as an accident-prevention exercise, according to the Journal.

Iranian technicians hoped to assume responsibility for the withdrawal as Iran assumes administrative duties from Rosatom, Iranian government insiders have indicated in recent weeks. Iranian Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh this month described the fuel move as one component of a "normal technical procedure" linked to the management transfer.

Meanwhile, Tehran on Monday said bilateral dialogue with Washington would be "possible" if it received endorsement from Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, AP reported.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi did not indicate whether such discussions could focus solely on Iran's atomic efforts, according to his comments as reported by the Islamic Republic News Agency. Iran had never previously provided an explicit sign of openness to a bilateral exchange with the United States, but Khamenei has not suggested he would permit such dialogue.

Washington's simultaneous diplomatic overtures to Tehran and efforts to coerce the government demonstrate "the weakness of [U.S.] logic and the use of force instead of reasoning,” Iran's Press TV quoted senior Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili as saying on Monday.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday said Washington would consider joining a direct meeting if Iran is "ever ready," Reuters reported. Iranian diplomats have met three times this year with counterparts from the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany in an effort to address the nuclear standoff.

"We are working on the P-5+1 and making our willingness known that we are ready to have a bilateral discussion if they are ever ready to engage," Clinton said.

The six world powers were seeking to develop a draft compromise "that does make it clear we are running out of time," she added without elaborating. "We have got to get serious; here are issues we are willing to discuss with you but we expect reciprocity."

Meanwhile, Iranian experts might have intentionally removed technical complexities from a chart reported last week as an indicator of an Iranian nuclear bomb-relevant study, a high-level envoy told AP on Friday. The possible move would have been aimed at Iranian policy-makers and could be responsible for a quantitative error in the information, the official said.

Elsewhere, Soltanieh on Friday addressed 50 queries on his nation's atomic activities during a meeting of the 35-nation IAEA governing board, IRNA reported.

"I decided to adopt an innovative approach in order to shift from the usual method of dealing with the reports of the (IAEA) director general and commenting on some usually provocative speeches of certain Western countries," the official stated.

"No doubt is left that the (International Atomic Energy Agency) file has to be closed immediately," he said. "It is only in this way that Iran will be encouraged to become more flexible while taking further voluntary steps."

The initial phase of any Israeli armed move against Iran could involve the use of remotely piloted aircraft to hit Iranian missile facilities, the Xinhua News Agency reported on Monday.

"We'll try to 'kill' them at the booster stage, the moment their engines are ignited," a knowledgeable Israeli armed forces insider said to the London Times. "If that happens, and it isn't as easy as it sounds, then the remaining missiles will be finished off by our Air Defense Command, " the official said in comments reported on Sunday.

December 3, 2012
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Iran's recent removal of fuel from its Bushehr atomic power plant stirred fears over the nation's protection of bomb-usable plutonium and prompted what U.S. government personnel described as a major increase in U.S. reconnaissance operations targeting the facility, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday.

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