TEHRAN, Iran – Iran should enrich uranium to new levels close to weapons-grade to produce fuel for proposed nuclear-powered oil tankers, a conservative Iranian news website said Monday.
Iran currently has no such ships. The commentary by Mashreghnews.ir, which reflects the views of some Iranian hardliners, comes after a parliamentary committee prepared a bill that would require the Islamic Republic to design nuclear-powered merchant ships and provide them with nuclear fuel.
Nuclear-powered vessels other than warships are rare worldwide. Iran says it is designing a nuclear submarine, but the country is seen to be far from a capability to build such ships.
However, a hypothetical fleet of nuclear-powered ships would be an additional justification -- alongside electricity generation and medical research -- to bolster Iran's claim that it needs higher enrichment for peaceful purposes. The West fears that Iranian enrichment is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, a claim Tehran denies.
Mashreghnews.ir argued however that Western sanctions may force Iran to use new sources of fuel for big vessels during long voyages. Officials say some countries refuse to refuel Iranian ships because of the sanctions.
It said Iran should enrich to 60 percent, much closer to weapons-grade than Tehran's current program.
"To reach nuclear propulsion, the country's nuclear industry inevitably has to upgrade the level of nuclear enrichment to the average level needed for new marine reactors, and that will be 50 to 60 percent," Mashreghnews.ir said.
The website said this will be an "effective step to thwart sanctions and make them ineffective."
Iran has been enriching uranium up to 5 percent for years but it upgraded its enrichment program to 20 percent in 2010, saying it needs that level of purity to produce fuel for a research reactor in Tehran that produces radioisotopes used for treatment of cancer patients.
But the West has been pressing the Islamic Republic to stop 20 percent enrichment because at that level the material can be turned into weapons-grade uranium much more quickly than 5 percent.
Western countries have recently stepped up sanctions on Iran. At the beginning of this month, an EU oil embargo went into effect against the Islamic Republic for its refusal to halt its enrichment program.