( Reuters ) - Iran has 100 kg of enriched uranium material in storage, the interior minister was on Friday quoted as saying, in comments that may worry Western powers who fear the Islamic Republic is seeking to build nuclear bombs.
But a senior Iranian nuclear official cast doubt on the information. "The figures are not correct," the official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
Iran has repeatedly refused U.N. demands to halt uranium enrichment, a process to make fuel for nuclear power plants that can also provide material for weapons if enriched to a much higher degree. Tehran says its purposes are entirely peaceful.
Diplomats and nuclear analysts say roughly 500 kg of low-enriched uranium would be needed as material for one bomb but it would have to be re-introduced into centrifuge machines reconfigured to produce bomb-grade uranium.
They say this would be difficult to hide from U.N. inspectors and Iran has repeatedly said it has no intention of trying to produce highly-enriched uranium suitable for weapons.
The ISNA news agency quoted Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi as saying in a speech in southwestern Iran late on Thursday: "More than 100 kg of enriched uranium materials have been delivered to storages."
He also said "more than 150 tons of initial materials of uranium gas is ready and has been stored." Uranium gas is fed into centrifuges to make enriched uranium.
The minister was speaking two days before Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani was due to hold a new round of exploratory talks with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana in the Portuguese capital Lisbon on Saturday.
The last meeting between Larijani and Solana, in Madrid last month, did not yield any breakthrough on the dispute. Instead of halting enrichment, as the United Nations Security Council has demanded, Iran has rapidly expanded its program.
The U.N. Security Council has already imposed two rounds of limited sanctions on Iran over its refusal to halt such work.
The United States said on Tuesday it and five other world powers -- Britain, Russia, France, Germany and China -- had begun discussing a third round of U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear defiance.
Iran, OPEC's second-largest crude exporter, says it solely aims to generate electricity so that it can export more of its valuable oil and gas. Its leadership says its nuclear program has passed the point of no return.
"When the world saw that the (Iranian) nation is pursuing this goal with unity, the world has surrendered, " Pourmohammadi said. "We have passed the dangerous moment."