Backgrounder: Major developments in Iran's nuclear research program

08:07, May 20, 2010      

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Iran on Monday agreed to send most of its low enriched uranium abroad in exchange for more highly enriched uranium fuel in a swap deal with Turkey and Brazil. The arrangement, however, has failed to cool the Iranian nuclear dispute.

The following is an introduction to the major developments in the Islamic Republic's nuclear research activities.

Iran launched its nuclear research in the late 1950s with the help of the United States as part of the U.S.-proposed Atoms for Peace initiative.

Following its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran's nuclear program had been locked in a stalemate until the early 1990s, when the Islamic Republic started talks with Russia on resuming the construction of nuclear power plants and then signed an agreement with the country on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Since then, the two countries have witnessed a steady increase in their cooperation in the nuclear energy field, in a partnership that has obviously irked the United States. In order to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, U.S. governments have been accusing the Islamic republic of secretly developing nuclear weapons under the guise of civilian nuclear research activities while turning the screws on Russia to halt cooperation with Iran.

When then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami declared in February, 2003 that his country had produced enriched uranium that could be used to fuel its power plant, the United States expressed strong suspicions. The Iranian nuclear issue has since loomed large.

Under mediation of the international community, Iran suspended its uranium programs in October 2003, and all of its peripheral activities related to uranium enrichment in November 2004.

However, the Islamic republic regards developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes as a fundamental policy. While cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it has long been trying to find a way out of the opposition from the Western counties and push forward with its nuclear research.

In September 2004, Iran announced that it had started using part of its 37 tons of uranium concentrate, known as yellowcake, in uranium conversion tests. In January 2006, Iran officially resumed nuclear fuel research projects, and proclaimed a major technological breakthrough. Later, the country successively declared that it had enriched uranium to 3.5 percent and 4.8 percent.

On April 9, 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that his country was able to produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale. On the following day, Iran claimed that it had made plans to install 50,000 centrifuges at its Natanz facility for uranium enrichment. In early 2009, about 7,000 centrifuges were running at Natanz.

In April 2009, Iran's first nuclear fuel plant was completed, with a capability of producing 40 tons of nuclear fuel per year. Five months later, Iran declared the beginning of construction on its second uranium enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom. In November, Iran expressed interest in constructing an additional 10 uranium enrichment facilities and acquiring 500,000 centrifuges to meet its need for power.

On Feb. 11, 2010, Iran declared that it had produced its first batch of 20 percent enriched uranium and that it planned to start building another two uranium enrichment plants within a year.

On April 9, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had developed third-generation centrifuges and planned to install 60,000 of the units in the Natanz plant, which would enable it to produce fuel for six nuclear power plants every year.

Faced with Iran's nuclear ambitions, the United States and some other countries have begun pushing for a new round of sanctions against the Islamic republic, upon which the United Nations has imposed three sets of sanctions since late 2006.



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