Iran in major nuclear expansion, U.N. oversight harder

VIENNA Fri Jun 5, 2009 7:15pm EDT

Iranian atomic energy chief Gholamreza Aghazadeh is seen at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, 350 km (217 miles) south of Tehran, April 8, 2008. REUTERS/Presidential official website/Handout

Iranian atomic energy chief Gholamreza Aghazadeh is seen at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, 350 km (217 miles) south of Tehran, April 8, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Presidential official website/Handout

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has significantly expanded uranium enrichment with almost 5,000 centrifuges now operating and this has made it harder for U.N. inspectors to keep track of the disputed nuclear activity, an IAEA report said on Friday.

Obtained by Reuters, the restricted International Atomic Energy Agency report said Iran had increased its rate of production of low-enriched uranium (LEU), boosting its stockpile by 500 kg to 1,339 kg in the past six months.

Iran's improved efficiency in turning out potential nuclear fuel is sure to fan Western fears of the Islamic Republic nearing the ability to make atomic bombs, if it chose to do so.

Oil giant Iran says it wants a uranium enrichment industry solely to provide an alternative source of electricity.

But it has stonewalled an IAEA investigation into suspected past research into bomb-making, calling U.S. intelligence about it forged, and continues to limit the scope of IAEA inspections.

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank that tracks proliferation issues, said Iran now had accumulated enough LEU to convert into high-enriched uranium (HEU) sufficient for one atom bomb.

This would require reconfiguring Iran's centrifuge network and miniaturizing HEU to fit into a warhead -- technical hurdles that could take 1-2 years or more -- and would not escape the notice of U.N. inspectors unless done at an undeclared location.

There are no indications of any such secret site.

"Still, Iran is ramping up enrichment to reach the point of potential nuclear weapons capability. They haven't made a political decision to do that. But their lack of constraint is disappointing given (U.S. President Barack) Obama's effort to start negotiations," Albright told Reuters from Washington.

JUMP IN CAPACITY

The U.N. nuclear watchdog report said Iran had 4,920 centrifuges, cylinders that spin at supersonic speed, being fed with uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) for enrichment nonstop as of May 31, a jump of about 25 percent since February.

Another 2,132 machines were installed and undergoing vacuum tests while a further 169 were being set up -- bringing Iran's total number of deployed centrifuges at its underground Natanz enrichment hall to 7,231 -- with 55,000 eventually planned.

The IAEA had told Iran that given the burgeoning numbers of centrifuges and increased pace of enrichment, "improvements to the containment and surveillance measures are required in order for the agency to continue to fully meet its safeguards objectives," the report said, referring to basic inspections.

Senior inspectors were discussing solutions with Iran.

"There is now a forest of 7,000 machines, that's quite a lot, it's a very impressive place, and they will be installing more which could mean 9,000 (soon)," said a senior U.N. official who asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

"That makes it increasingly difficult to do the surveillance (to ensure no diversions for bombmaking purposes elsewhere). We are reviewing (the angles) of our cameras, walking rules (for workers handling equipment), where things are being kept."

At a separate pilot plant in Natanz, Iran continues to test small numbers of a more sophisticated centrifuge than the 1970s vintage it is now using. These models could refine uranium 2-3 times as fast as the P-1, analysts say.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has urged Iran to engage with the United States, "grasp the hand that Obama is extending to you," and negotiate over its nuclear program to ensure it remains civilian under effective monitoring.

But little progress in coaxing Iran to open up to IAEA investigators and grant more wide-ranging inspections is likely without a major thaw in Tehran's relations with Western powers.

"The Iran file has been on the table for six years. It's high time to sort it out. We hope Iran and international community get to the table and start to come up with solutions so we can do our (non-proliferation) job," said the senior U.N. official.

Obama has set a rough timetable for negotiating results with Iran, saying he wanted serious progress by the end of the year. He has underlined that any U.S. overtures will be accompanied by harsher sanctions if there is no cooperation.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

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