U.N. official says 40 nations capable of making nukes

VIENNA, Austria — More than 40 countries with peaceful nuclear programs could retool them to make weapons, the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency said yesterday amid new U.S. and European demands that Iran give up technology capable of producing such arms.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, suggested in a keynote address to the IAEA general conference that it was time to tighten world policing of nuclear activities and to stop relying on information volunteered by countries.

Beyond the declared nuclear arms-holding countries, "some estimates indicate that 40 countries or more now have the know-how to produce nuclear weapons," he said.

"We are relying primarily on the continued good intentions of these countries, intentions which could be subject to rapid change."

Libya last year revealed a clandestine nuclear arms program and announced it would scrap it; North Korea is threatening to activate a weapons program; Iran is being investigated for what the United States says is evidence it was trying to make nuclear arms; and South Korea recently said it conducted secret experiments with plutonium and enriched uranium, both possible components of weapons programs.

ElBaradei linked the need for strengthened controls to concerns about the international nuclear black market in materials and knowledge that supplied both Iran and Libya and whose existence was proven last year.

The "relative ease with which a multinational illicit network could be set up and operate demonstrates clearly the inadequacy" of the present controls on nuclear exports, he said.

ElBaradei did not name the countries. But more than a dozen European countries with either power-producing nuclear reactors or large-scale research reactors are among them, as well as Canada, and countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Most peaceful nuclear programs use enriched uranium — a substance that when processed to levels of enrichment above 90 percent can be used to make nuclear warheads — as a power source. Most countries also could extract plutonium from spent fuel for nuclear weapons use.

Iran's enrichment program has been the focus of increased world concern because of suspicions Iran may not be truthful when it says it is interested in the technology only to generate power.

A resolution passed unanimously Saturday by the agency's governing board demanded that Iran freeze all work on uranium enrichment.

President Mohammad Khatami said today that Iran will continue its nuclear program, even if that means ending inspections by the U.N. nuclear-monitoring agency.