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Inspectors probe Iran uranium find

Inspectors have located radioactive traces at an Iranian underground bunker, the UN atomic agency has said in a finding that could mean Iran has moved closer to reaching the uranium threshold needed to arm nuclear missiles.

In a report obtained by The Associated Press (AP), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it was asking Tehran for a full explanation. But the report was careful to avoid any suggestion that Iran was intentionally increasing the level of its uranium enrichment, noting that Tehran said a technical glitch was responsible.

Analysts as well as diplomats who had told the AP of the existence of the traces before publication of the confidential report also said the higher-enriched material could have been a mishap involving centrifuges over-performing as technicians adjusted their output rather than a dangerous step toward building a bomb.

Still, the finding was bound to resonate among the 35 IAEA board members for which the report was prepared, among them the six world powers that had just concluded talks with Iran on its enrichment activities.

The talks left the two sides still far apart over how to oversee Tehran's atomic programme but resolved to keep dialogue going as an alternative to possible military action.

The six nations - the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - are already concerned that Iran is enriching to 20% because material at that level can be turned into weapons-grade uranium much more quickly than its main, low-enriched stockpile suitable for nuclear fuel.

The higher the enrichment, the easier it becomes to re-enrich uranium to warhead quality at 90%. As a result, any finding of traces at 27% was likely to spark international interest.

Iran denies any plans to possess nuclear weapons but has for years declined offers of reactor fuel from abroad, including more recent inducements of 20% material if it stops producing at that level. The Islamic Republic says it wants to continue producing 20% uranium to fuel its research reactor and for medical purposes.

But its refusal to accept foreign offers have increased fears it may want to turn its enrichment activities toward producing such arms. The concerns have been fed by IAEA suspicions that Iran has experimented on components of an atomic arms programme - suspicions Tehran also denies.

The report cited a May 9 letter from Iranian officials suggesting any enrichment at 27% at the Fordo enrichment plant in central Iran was inadvertent. The letter said the particles were produced "above the target value" and could have been for "technical reasons beyond the operator's control".

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