Iran is poised for a major technological update of its uranium
enrichment program, allowing it to vastly increase production of the
material that can be used for both reactor fuel and nuclear warheads,
diplomats told The Associated Press Thursday.
diplomats said that Iran last week told the International Atomic Energy
Agency that it wants to install thousands of high-technology machines at
its main enriching site at Natanz, in central Iran.
argues it has a right to enrich for a civilian nuclear power program.
But suspicion persists that the real aim is nuclear weapons, because it
hid much of its program until it was revealed from the outside more than
a decade ago and because of what the IAEA says are indications that it
worked secretly on weapons development. Defying U.N. Security Council
demands that it halt enrichment, Iran has instead expanded it.
of the diplomats said Iranian officials informed the Vienna-based
nuclear watchdog that they planned to mount as many as 3,132 of the
new-generation centrifuges. He said a confidential note circulated
Thursday to the IAEA's 35-nation board cited Iranian officials as saying
that domestically developed IR-2m centrifuges would be used.
Fitzpatrick, an expert on Iran's nuclear program and the director of
the nonproliferation and disarmament program at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the new machines "could be a game-changer, depending on how many they introduce."
introduction of the machines, if confirmed, "does suggest that they
made a breakthrough, and are moving from the research and development
phase to employing them to enrich uranium," Fitzpatrick told CBSNews.com
the IR-2M machines can enrich uranium "four to five times faster" than
other centrifuges in use at Iran's plants.
by IAEA inspectors, "this will reduce the timeline for Iran being able
to produce a weapon's worth of fissile material," added Fitzpatrick. He
said IAEA inspectors were due to visit Natanz and issue a report on
their findings in the next couple weeks, which "will indicate exactly
how many (IR-2M centrifuges) have been introduced."
to Fitzpatrick, Iran has been working for 10 years or more in a pilot
program at Natanz to bring these new centrifuges into use. There have
been a couple hundred undergoing trial and development at the pilot
plant, and he suspects it was international sanctions that delayed their
roll-out for so long.
Iran says it is enriching only to
power reactors and for scientific and medical purposes. But because of
its nuclear secrecy, many countries fear that Iran may break out from
its present production that is below the weapons-grade threshold and
start enriching to levels of over 90 percent, used to arm nuclear
Tehran now has more than 10,000 centrifuges
enriching uranium at its main plant at Natanz, 140 miles southeast of
Tehran, to fuel grade at below 4 percent. Its separate Fordo facility,
southwest of Tehran, has close to 3,000 centrifuges producing material
enriched to 20 percent, which can be turned into weapons-grade uranium
much more quickly.
Fitzpatrick says the fear is that the
new machines, "will enable them to very quickly turn it (their 20
percent-enriched stockpile) into high enriched uranium."
has depended on centrifuges whose design is decades old at both
locations up to now, while occasionally displaying models of more
advanced machines. If it makes good on its announcement to move to a
high-tech model it will be able to increase its stockpile of enriched
uranium at two to three times the present rate.
already has enough enriched material for several nuclear weapons. But it
insists it has no such plans. And experts say that while it could
produce enough weapons-grade uranium to arm a nuclear bomb with two to
four months, it would still face serious engineering challenges that
would lead to much longer delays before it would succeed in making the
other components needed for a functioning warhead.