NATANZ, Iran (Reuters) - Iran announced on Monday it had begun industrial-scale nuclear fuel production in a fresh snub to the U.N. Security Council, which has imposed two rounds of sanctions on it for refusing to halt such work.
The announcement marks a shift from experimental atomic fuel work involving a few hundred centrifuges used for enriching uranium to a process that will involve thousands of machines.
Western nations fear this will bring Tehran closer to what they say is its aim of building atomic bombs. Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, insists it only wants the fuel for generating electricity so it can export more of its oil and gas.
“I proudly announce that as of today Iran is among the countries which produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a gathering at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran.
Washington swiftly denounced the declaration, saying it was a further sign Iran was defying the international community.
Iran, which announced a year ago it had produced its first tiny batch of enriched uranium, had said it would install 3,000 centrifuges as a first stage towards “industrial-scale” output.
Chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani was quoted by Mehr News Agency as saying Iran had “reached the capacity of 3,000”. Asked if feedstock uranium gas had been injected into them, he told reporters: “Yes, we have injected gas.”
Diplomats previously said Iran had set up a third of the 3,000 machines but had not introduced feedstock. An Iranian official told ISNA news agency U.N inspectors who routinely visit would confirm centrifuge numbers in 20 days’ time.
Analysts say Iran has used such announcements of atomic progress in the past to strengthen its bargaining position with the West, but that such statements have often glossed over technical glitches they say have plagued Iran’s nuclear work.
Iran aims to build 54,000 centrifuges, which spin at high speeds to produce fuel for power plants or, if it is enriched further, bombs. With 3,000, Iran could make enough material for a bomb in one year if it wanted to, Western experts say.
Ahmadinejad said Iran would not bow to pressure to stop its atomic work, which he insisted was a right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The West says Iran must prove its program has no military aims to enjoy that right.
“Iran has so far moved in a completely peaceful path and wants to continue following this path, they should avoid doing something which forces this nation to review its behaviour,” Ahmadinejad said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Iran’s announcement was “another signal that Iran is defying the international community”. The White House said it was “very concerned” that Tehran had started industrial atomic work.
The U.N. Security Council has passed two sanctions resolutions on Iran since December, targeting its nuclear and military sectors and severely impeding its financial transactions with the outside world.
“If they continue to pressure Iran over its peaceful nuclear activities we have no other choice but to follow parliament’s order and review our membership of the NPT,” said Larijani.
Western diplomats say quitting the NPT would undermine Iran’s case that its goals are civilian. Iran has made similar threats before without acting.