Diplomats: Iran processes uranium gas
Iran's new generation of advanced centrifuges have begun processing small quantities of the gas that can be used to make the fissile core of nuclear warheads, diplomats told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
more stories like thisThe diplomats emphasized that the centrifuges were working with minute amounts of uranium gas. One diplomat said Tehran has set up only 10 of the machines -- far too few to make enriched uranium in the quantities needed for an industrial-scale energy or weapons program.
Still, the information revealed details of the state of Iran's experiments with its domestically developed IR-2 centrifuges, which can churn out enriched uranium at more than double the rate of the machines that now form the backbone of the Iranian nuclear project.
The existence of the IR-2 was made known only last week by diplomats accredited to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which is investigating Iran's nuclear program for any evidence that it might have been designed to make weapons.
Diplomats told AP last week that the new centrifuges appeared to be running empty and they could not quantify the number of machines that had been set up at the experimental facility linked to Iran's growing underground enrichment plant at Natanz.
Fleshing out previous information, a diplomat said Wednesday that the IR-2 centrifuges were set up Jan. 20 and began processing minute amounts of uranium gas soon afterward as part of testing the machines.
He and other diplomats who discussed the latest details of Iran's program agreed to do so only if granted anonymity because they were not supposed to be releasing the confidential information.
Iran is under two sets of U.N. sanctions for ignoring Security Council demands that it suspend uranium enrichment, which Tehran started developing during nearly two decades of covert nuclear activity built on illicit purchases on the nuclear black market.
Iran insists the program is meant only to produce fuel for atomic reactors that will generate electricity, but the revelation five years ago of the secret work heightened suspicions by the U.S. and others that the Iranians want to develop nuclear arms.
In rejecting U.N. demands that enrichment be halted until suspicions are cleared up, Iranian leaders have argued their country has a right to a peaceful nuclear program and insisted they would expand the project rather than freeze it.
Until last week's revelations that Iran had developed its own advanced centrifuge, Tehran had publicly focused on working with P1 centrifuges, outmoded machines acquired on the black market in the 1980s. More than 3,000 of the older centrifuges are processing uranium gas near Natanz, a city about 300 miles south of Tehran.
An IAEA report in November said Iran has stockpiled nearly 300 tons of the precursor gas used in enrichment. That would be enough to make about 40 nuclear bombs were it spun to weapons grade concentrations, experts have said.
Diplomats described the IR-2 as a hybrid of the P-2 centrifuge once peddled on the black market by A.Q. Khan, the scientist who oversaw Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons.
The P-2 can enrich uranium gas up to three times faster than a P-1, but it is made from maraged steel -- a high-nickel, low-carbon steel that is difficult to manufacture and hard to smuggle through international controls.
Diplomats said last week the Iranians had circumvented that problem by making the new centrifuge's rotor tubes out of carbon fiber, presumably working with machines and technology developed for Tehran's missile sector and using a German version as a model.
Former U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security tracks countries under nuclear suspicion, said 1,200 of the more advanced machines could produce enough material for a single nuclear warhead in a year, compared to 3,000 of the older model.
He also said 10 centrifuges already processing uranium gas indicated they have been linked to each other in a "cascade" -- a configuration used in industrial-size operations and an indication of a fairly advanced stage of testing.
"Here's a centrifuge largely developed at a secret site, and it appears they have gotten further along than people have anticipated," he said.
1) Diplomats: Iran processes uranium gas