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UK nuclear export sent to Iran claim

The Australian | January 8 2006

BRITAIN has allowed the export to Iran of a cargo of radioactive material that experts believe could be used by the Islamic Republic as part of a nuclear weapons programme, The Observer reported.

The newspaper said a truck carrying 1000kg of zirconium silicate from a British firm was stopped by customs officials in Bulgaria at the border with Turkey.

It quoted an expert as saying that zirconium metal can be extracted from the substance, whose trade is usually tightly regulated, and used to prevent fuel rods corroding in nuclear reactors and as part of a nuclear warhead.

But the truck, which had travelled unchecked from Britain through Germany and Romania without being stopped, was allowed to continue its journey to Tehran after a two-month investigation found an export licence was not needed.

British and Bulgarian officials in Sofia reportedly looked into whether the cargo had breached technical rules on how much of the substance contained another rare metal, hafnium.

The Observer quoted a Department of Trade and Industry spokeswoman as saying analysis of levels of hafnium in the substance meant a licence was not required.

"This particular case raise no WMD (weapons of mass destruction) end-use concerns," she added.

The Observer's dispatch came as Iran looked set to end its two-and-a-half year suspension of nuclear fuel research Monday or Tuesday, despite calls not to from the international community, including the EU.

Talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Government are currently deadlocked over the issue, with the West fearing Iran's fledgling nuclear programme is a front for developing atomic weapons.

Independent nuclear consultant John Large told The Observer: "It is not a very sophisticated process to extract the zirconium from such material.

"Even though it appears that technically this cargo does not fall within the international controls, I would still be concerned.

"Zirconium is used for two purposes: one for cladding nuclear fuel rods inside a reactor and as a material for a nuclear weapon.

"If Iran wanted this material for any illicit purposes, this would be one way it could get its hands on it.

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