Thursday, April 19, 2007
Iran has begun enriching uranium
Apr 18, 2007 5:18 PM ET By Mark Heinrich VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has begun making nuclear fuel in its underground uranium enrichment plant, the international atomic watchdog said on Wednesday, in a move by Tehran that raises the stakes in its showdown with world powers. A confidential note by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also said Iran had started up more than 1,300 centrifuge machines in an accelerating campaign to lay a basis for "industrial scale" enrichment in the Natanz complex. Iran has been steadily upping the ante in a standoff with the U.N. Security Council, which has demanded an enrichment halt over suspicions that Tehran's declared civilian nuclear fuel project is a cover for mastering the means to build atom bombs. Tehran says it seeks only nuclear-generated electricity. But its past concealment of sensitive enrichment research from the International Atomic Energy Agency and continued stonewalling of IAEA inquiries have sapped confidence in its intentions. Iran announced on April 9 that it had begun enriching in the Natanz hall, ramping up from a limited research operation above ground. But diplomats treated the disclosure skeptically pending confirmation from the Vienna-based IAEA. To that end, the IAEA note said, agency inspectors visited the plant on April 15-16 and learned that 1,312 centrifuges, divided into eight cascades, or fuel-cycle networks, were running and "some" uranium was being fed into them. Iran has installed hundreds of centrifuges within weeks and aims to have 3,000 operational by next month. That could be enough to refine uranium for one bomb within a year, if Iran wanted to and if the machines ran for long periods without breakdown -- a proficiency Iran has yet to demonstrate. The three-paragraph note by IAEA deputy director Olli Heinonen also said Iran had stopped letting inspectors verify design work at the Arak heavy water reactor, under construction and scheduled for launching in 2009. PROLIFERATION RISK Major powers see the reactor as a nuclear proliferation risk as it could be used to produce plutonium for the core of nuclear bombs, although Iran says it has only peaceful purposes such as production of radio-isotopes for medical care. Iran blocked IAEA access to Arak under its decision a few weeks ago to stop giving inspectors early design detail on future nuclear facilities. The move retaliated for a March U.N. resolution widening sanctions on Iran over its nuclear defiance. Heinonen's remarks, in the form of a letter to Iran's IAEA envoy, nudged Iran to uphold an accord to permit "a combination of unannounced inspections and containment and surveillance measures" to improve transparency at Natanz. He also urged Iran to "reconsider" its restriction on information about the Arak reactor. Iran has to date refused to let the IAEA install video cameras pointed at the underground centrifuges and stopped allowing snap inspections last year in retaliation for U.N. pressure, saying it had no legal obligation to either step. Iran has reduced its cooperation with the IAEA to a legal minimum, well below what the agency sees as essential to clearing up longstanding questions about the nature of the Iranian nuclear program. Asked about the letter, Iranian Ambassador Ali Ashgar Soltanieh told Reuters: "Enrichment is continuing under safeguards of the IAEA. Everything is continuing as planned and the IAEA is informed about it." Tehran vowed on Tuesday to pursue plans to heighten its uranium enrichment capacity and said U.N. sanctions would not hamper centrifuge installation in the Natanz plant, guarded by anti-aircraft guns against feared U.S. attack. Iran's Atomic Energy Organization chief has suggested it could take 2-4 years to reach the goal of 50,000 centrifuges. Centrifuges spin at supersonic speed to produce fuel for power plants or, if enriched to high levels, warheads. The U.N. Security Council has passed two sanctions resolutions against Iran since December, targeting its nuclear and military sectors and severely impeding its financial transactions with the outside world.