Iran boosting its nuclear capacity, warn diplomats

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Manju Shukla
Date  18 Oct.2012
 Iran is believed to be further increasing its uranium enrichment capacity at its Fordow plant buried deep underground, western diplomats say, in another sign of Tehran defying international demands to curb its disputed nuclear programme.

But they said the Islamic Republic did not yet appear to have started up the newly installed centrifuges to boost production of material Iran says is for reactor fuel but which can also have military uses.

“Iran continues to build up enrichment capacity,” one western official said.

A diplomat accredited to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency said: “We think that they have continued installing centrifuges at Fordow. We think that their pace has continued the same as it was, which was pretty rapid.”

If confirmed in the next IAEA report on Iran’s atomic activities, expected in mid-November, it would suggest Iran is steadily moving towards completing instalment of centrifuges at the site.

The work may be “near complete”, the Vienna-based diplomat said, in comments echoed by another envoy.

There was no immediate comment from Iran or the IAEA, based in the Austrian capital.

Fordow – whose existence Tehran only disclosed in 2009 after learning that western spy services had detected it – is of particular concern for the US and its allies as Iran uses it for its higher-grade enrichment.

Iran says it needs uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 per cent, compared with the level of up to 5 per cent it produces at its main enrichment facility at Natanz, to make fuel for a medical research reactor in Tehran.

But it also takes Iran a significant technical step closer to the 90 per cent concentration needed for bombs, explaining the West’s growing concern about the Islamic state’s stockpile of the material.

A US-based think tank, the Institute for Science and International Security, this month said Iran would need at least two to four months to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb, and additional time to make the device itself.

Last week, Iranian officials said Tehran would negotiate on halting higher-grade enrichment if given fuel for the research reactor, in a possible attempt to show flexibility in stalled nuclear talks.

The IAEA said in its last report on Iran in late August that the country had doubled the number of centrifuges to 2,140 at Fordow since the previous report in May. More than 600 remained to be installed, the report showed.

Since then, diplomats said they thought Iran had put in place more centrifuges at the site near the holy Shia Muslim city of Qom, about 130km (80 miles) from Tehran, deep under soil and rock for protection against any attack.

But they said Iran was still operating the same number of machines as early this year, nearly 700. It was not clear when the new equipment would be launched or whether Iran was holding back for technical or political reasons. It is also not known whether the centrifuges not yet operational will be used for 5 or 20 per cent enrichment, or both, the diplomats say.

EU governments imposed sanctions on Tuesday against major Iranian state companies in the oil and gas industry, and strengthened restrictions on the central bank, cranking up financial pressure on Tehran

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