VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has introduced small amounts of uranium gas into advanced centrifuges it is testing at its main nuclear complex, diplomats said, in a further step towards gaining the means to develop atom bombs if it later chooses.
A European Union diplomat said the move was a “stunning rejection” of repeated U.N. Security Council demands that Iran suspend sensitive nuclear activity, and could hasten passage of broader sanctions drafted by six world powers.
Iran says it wants to enrich uranium only for electricity so it can export more oil. But it is under sanctions for hiding the program until 2003, preventing U.N. inspectors since then from verifying it is wholly peaceful, and refusing to suspend it.
Diplomats familiar with U.N. nuclear watchdog inspections disclosed last week that Iran had begun “dry runs”, without nuclear material, of a more efficient, durable centrifuge to replace an erratic old model it now uses to refine uranium.
They said Iran had now begun test-feeding token quantities of uranium “UF6” gas into a few of the “new generation” centrifuges in the pilot wing of the Natanz enrichment complex. No further details were immediately available.
International Atomic Energy Agency officials had no comment, saying details would come in a report IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei will deliver to the Vienna-based agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors and the U.N. Security Council next week.
The “IR-2” centrifuge, an adaptation of a Pakistani model whose design Iran obtained in the 1990s from the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network, could refine uranium 2-3 times as fast as the antiquated model Iran has used to date.
Tehran’s quest to produce usable amounts of nuclear fuel has been hampered by problems getting its existing “P-1” line of centrifuges to spin nonstop at maximum speed. Iran had 3,000 P-1s working by November, a basis for launching industrial-scale enrichment, but only at an estimated 10 percent of capacity.
Three thousand P-1s could yield enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb in about a year if run at full capacity, but it would take only 1,200 of the IR2s to do so within the same period, according to U.S. nuclear analyst David Albright.
Diplomats tracking the IAEA’s Iran file said last week that Iran had decided to install no more P-1s in Natanz’s vast underground production hall and to expand capacity using only their upgraded successor.
Tehran revealed in 2006 that it was developing supposedly state-of-the-art centrifuges at workshops put off-limits to IAEA inspectors in retaliation for steps by Western powers to impose initial sanctions on Tehran.
The IAEA got a first, one-off look at the advanced centrifuge effort when Iran allowed ElBaradei to visit a workshop in Tehran last month in a gesture of transparency, diplomats close to the Vienna-based U.N. watchdog said.
A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) said in December that Iran stopped trying to devise a nuclear warhead in 2003, shortly after Iranian exiles exposed covert enrichment activity.
But the NIE also said Iran would gradually acquire the latent ability to assemble nuclear weapons through its significant expansion of enrichment infrastructure since then.
Russia on Wednesday suggested it could no longer hold back tougher sanctions against Iran, a major trade partner, saying Tehran’s accelerating enrichment drive and production of rockets looked like it was thumbing its nose at the world.
“From the point of view of international law these actions are not forbidden. But you can also not ignore that in previous years a whole host of problems were uncovered in Iran’s nuclear program,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“Until these problems can be removed I think it is advisable to refrain from steps ...that merely heat up the atmosphere and create the impression that Iran really has made up its mind to ignore the international community, the United Nations Security Council and the IAEA,” Lavrov told the Interfax news agency.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she hoped the Security Council would vote within weeks on further sanctions.
Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow and Sue Pleming in Washington; Editing by Charles Dick
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