Iran installs advanced centrifuges in main atom plant
Mark Heinrich – Reuters April 3, 2008
Iran has begun installing advanced centrifuges in its main uranium enrichment plant, accelerating activity that could give it the means to make atom bombs in future if it chooses, diplomats said on Thursday.
Iran says it wants to produce nuclear fuel only for electricity so it can export more oil. But has been hit with three sets of United Nations sanctions for hiding the work until 2003, failing to prove to inspectors since then that it is wholly peaceful, and refusing to suspend the disputed program.
Iran launched 3,000 centrifuges, a basis for industrial scale enrichment, in the underground Natanz production hall last year. But they are a 1970s-vintage design prone to breakdown so Iran began testing an advanced version in Natanz's pilot wing.
After an installation pause of several months in the main enrichment plant, Iran has now introduced more than 300 more centrifuges, some of them improved versions and some the earlier model, Western diplomats with access to intelligence said.
"The ratio of (new to old) centrifuges in the new batch is not yet clear," one of them told Reuters, but he said Iran's intent appeared to be to produce "to the maximum" with the advanced machine by gradually phasing out its predecessor.
An "IR-2" centrifuge Iran has been developing could enrich uranium 2-3 times faster than its start-up counterpart.
Iran's ambassador to the IAEA told Reuters he was unaware of new progress in the Natanz enrichment bunker, which is ringed by anti-aircraft guns against a feared U.S. bombing.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which has inspectors at Natanz, declined comment.
A senior diplomat familiar with the IAEA's Iran mission did not dispute the disclosures but said it remained unclear if Iran could get the upgraded brand of centrifuge to work productively.
Centrifuges are temperamental tubes that spin at supersonic speed to refine uranium to levels suitable for power plants or bombs, depending on their configuration. They normally run in cascades (interlinked production networks) of 164 each.
NEW CENTRIFUGES PASS QUALITY TESTS
The first diplomatic source said Iran had completed quality control checks on the newly installed centrifuges and was ready to start feeding uranium gas into them for enrichment, but it was unclear when this process would begin.
"Iran has already done ... necessary vacuum tests, including leakage checks, to make sure the (latest) centrifuges are in working order and to activate them," he said.
"The two new cascades were installed to comply with a directive from President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad that on April 8, a date Iran has marked as National Nuclear Technology Day, a significant achievement would be displayed."
Ahmadinejad used the same occasion a year ago to proclaim industrial enrichment capacity. But nuclear analysts said then, and still say, Tehran has yet to show it can run centrifuges in large numbers at optimal speed nonstop for long periods -- the key to yielding usable quantities of enriched uranium.
Still, a U.S. intelligent report in December said Iran would gain a latent ability to build atomic warheads between 2010 and 2015 just by gradually expanding the program and mastering the technology.
The diplomats who reported the new centrifuge installations said the move was meant to "state a fait accompli" to show Iran has no intention of suspending enrichment, as demanded by the U.N. Security Council, but rather of accelerating progress towards industrial production of fissile nuclear material.
The IAEA is also pressing Iran to explain Western intelligence alleging that it conducted secret studies into how to "weaponize" nuclear materials despite its membership of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran says the information is forged.
Diplomats close to the IAEA said it was aiming to set up a meeting with a top Iranian nuclear official in Vienna in mid-April to have him address the intelligence fully.
(Editing by Caroline Drees)
Last updated 07/04/2008