VIENNA - High-energy neutron experiments in Iran that could be either civilian oriented or related to making an atomic bomb have raised suspicions since they are allegedly conducted under military supervision, diplomats told AFP Friday and in recent interviews.
The experiments, carried out with a neutron generator, are thought to be taking place at an alleged base of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards.
They involve the sort of dual-use technology which the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has its eye on but has trouble investigating since it can have civilian as well as military applications.
But a diplomat with close links to intelligence sources said "the combination of the existence of a neutron initiator in a secret facility run by the Revolutionary Guard, making high- and not low-energy neutron experiments is a sufficient good indicator to a suspected military program."
The experiments may involve beryllium metal, a strategically sensitive item which the Vienna-based IAEA discussed in a report in November on Iran.
One diplomat cited open-literature reports by Iranian nuclear scientists about work with high-energy neutrons and beryllium in universities in Birmingham, England and in Ferdowsi University in Mashhad, northeast Iran.
The experiments could be a link in alleged weapons activities, involving beryllium and another sensitive metal polonium.
Iranian officials insist that their nuclear program is a peaceful effort to produce electricity and that their work with polonium is intended to make nuclear batteries.
But polonium combined with beryllium can be the trigger for an atomic bomb while beryllium can be used to make the reflector that captures neutrons in order to kick off the actual nuclear explosion.
The accusations come as Iran and the European Union are set to meet Monday in Brussels to discuss a long-term deal in which Iran would get peaceful nuclear technology, trade benefits and regional security help in return for suspending uranium enrichment, the key part of the nuclear fuel cycle.
It also comes as the IAEA is trying to look into claims from the United States and the Iranian resistance that Iran is hiding nuclear weapons development at military facilities.
According to the first diplomat, the neutron experiments are being conducted at a base of the elite Revolutionary Guard military on the outskirts of Tehran "in a neutron generator in an isolated underground building."
The base is near the Malek Ashtar Technology University where a team of "six senior nuclear scientists and several research assistants" do calculations from the data, the diplomat said.
The diplomat said "fast (high-energy) neutron experiments, involving 14 million electron volts, which are not slowed down by moderators and are performed in a classified facility, are designed for nuclear fission processes, that is nuclear bomb systems."
An expert close to the IAEA said the agency was conscious of this work and was measuring it against a scale it has of determining whether to investigate the matter.
The expert said the fast neutron experiments can have three applications: to study research reactors which also can use beryllium shields, to study fusion or to develop energy reflectors for atomic bombs.
But the IAEA is limited in its investigations of alleged weapons work since its mandate under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is to guarantee that a country has declared all its nuclear material, diplomats said.
The IAEA, for instance, wants to visit the Parchin military testing site, where US officials say the Iranians may be "dry-testing" atomic bombs using inert uranium.
But the IAEA cannot insist on this since it has no evidence there is nuclear material at Parchin and the agency is asking for the visit as a "transparency" gesture of good faith on the part of Iran.
This is true of most military sites since Iran claims its nuclear program is strictly civilian.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has said that countries can honor the NPT and still develop under civilian auspices the technology for nuclear weapons, as North Korea did before kicking out IAEA inspectors and withdrawing from the NPT in 2003.
For instance, uranium enrichment can serve to produce fuel for nuclear power stations but can also manufacture the explosive core of an atomic bomb.
Alleged weapons work, as with the neutron experiments, or beryllium or other dual-use technology such as high-speed cameras and flash X-ray equipment, can also be strictly peaceful technology.
Neutron experiments, for instance, can be devoted to developing neutron guns to measure the walls of oil wells.
The IAEA thus tries to find links or connections that strengthen its case and has been looking into whether Iran has succeeded in obtaining large amounts of beryllium.
But the agency has not seen this, the expert said.