(Updates with comment from Obama spokesman, letter to EU in fourth-eighth paragraphs.)
Feb. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Iran loaded locally built fuel plates into its nuclear research reactor in Tehran, state-run Press TV reported today, showing images of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inside the facility.
Only a handful of countries, including France and the U.S., have the technology to build the 20-percent enriched fuel plates needed for the reactor, according to Iranian officials. Ahmadinejad described the step as a “major” nuclear feat.
Iranian scientists achieved the breakthrough in line with a policy of “nuclear energy for all and nuclear weapons for none,” the Islamic Republic News Agency said. It shows that Iran won’t be intimidated and will pursue its technological advancement, the Iranian Students News Agency said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. was aware of the announcement and “we expect to learn more” from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors working in Iran.
Carney, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, said the U.S. has never objected to peaceful, civilian nuclear activities by Iran and wants to see Iran abide by international obligations and renounce its interest in nuclear weapons.
Carney said reports of the nuclear announcement and threats of cutoff of oil exports reflect “provocative acts” that are “designed to distract attention from the demonstrated impact” of international sanctions against Iran.
The European Union said it has received a letter from Iran in response to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s October letter regarding talks on the nation’s nuclear program.
The EU is studying the letter from Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, and is consulting with its so-called E3+3 partners over the communication, the EU said today in a statement on its website. The EU didn’t release the letter.
The announcement from Iran comes at a time of increased tension between Iran and western powers over its nuclear activities, with tighter sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European Union that restrict trade and financial transactions.
Israel, which Iran does not recognize, has said time is running out for sanctions to work as a deterrent to nuclear weapons development in the Islamic republic, and Israeli leaders have said a military strike may be needed.
Israel accused Iran of involvement in car-bomb attacks this week that targeted Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia. Iran rejected the claims as baseless. Iran says Israel is behind a series of killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, and accuses the Jewish state of being the first Middle Eastern country to develop nuclear weapons, which Israel neither confirms nor denies.
Iran, a signatory to the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, says its nuclear program is purely civilian and aimed at producing electricity for its growing population.
The Tehran Research Reactor produces medical isotopes for cancer treatment and operates using metal plates constructed with 20 percent enriched uranium. Iran sought to swap raw uranium fuel for the reactor plates in 2009 as part of a confidence-building deal proposed by the IAEA.
UN officials estimated in 2010 that the reactor would run out of its current stock of fuel, made by Argentina and supplied to Iran in 1992, by this year. It’s unclear based on pictures broadcast today from Tehran whether Iran inserted plates into the reactor or tested uranium stocks inside fuel rods.
Ahmadinejad, who was first elected in 2005, has repeatedly dangled the prospect of nuclear leaps to invigorate his followers and intimidate countries that he says threaten Iran. The president said in April 2006 that Iran had joined the “nuclear club” of countries with nuclear technology. In January 2010, he promised to announce nuclear news “so sweet” it would “please all the Iranian people.”
During Ahmadinejad two four-year terms, the Iranian government has sought to turn the country’s nuclear program into a source of pride for the population and a symbol of independence and resistance in the face of pressure from abroad.
--With assistance from Jonathan Tirone in Vienna, Margaret Talev in Washington and Ewa Krukowska in Brussels. Editors: Joe Sobczyk, Steven Komarow
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