Uranium machines pave way for nuclear fuel

By George Jahn The Associated Press

VIENNA, Austria – Iran is ready to start assembling thousands of centrifuges to produce enriched uranium – a possible pathway to nuclear arms – after finishing most preliminary work on an underground facility housing such machines, a diplomat and a U.N. official said yesterday.

The two – who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss confidential information – said much, but not all, of the hardware needed for the installation of the centrifuges was now in place at the Natanz facility designated to house Tehran’s industrial-scale enrichment program.

Both men emphasized that the facility had been ready for some time, and there was no sign that actual work on putting in the centrifuges would begin at any particular date.

Still, there has been speculation that the hardline leadership might start doing so next month, to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that brought the clerical leadership to power.

The revelations – based on reports by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency visiting Natanz this week – appeared to strengthen claims from Tehran that it is moving toward large-scale enrichment involving 3,000 centrifuges, which spin uranium gas into enriched material.

Low-enriched uranium can be used to generate power, while highly enriched levels serve as the fissile core of nuclear warheads

“We are moving toward the production of nuclear fuel, which requires 3,000 centrifuges and more than this figure,” government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham told reporters Monday. “This program is being carried out and moving toward completion.”

Iran’s leaders have suggested those machines would be in place by March 20, the end of the Iranian year. But the diplomat and official said quick completion of such a large-scale project was unlikely, saying the complicated process takes months.

The United States and some of its allies accuse Iran of trying to produce nuclear weapons. Tehran denies this, saying its program is only for generating electricity.

The IAEA has said it has found no evidence that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, but it has criticized the country for concealing certain nuclear activities, conducting experiments that seem to have no peaceful nuclear applications and failing to answer questions about the program.

Iran plans to ultimately expand its enrichment program to 54,000 centrifuges. That would give it the capacity to produce dozens of nuclear warheads a year, if it chose to develop weapons.