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Iran's nuclear advance may add to Western worries

Sep 5, 2011, 4:03 a.m.
Iranian workers stand in front of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, about 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, in this October 26, 2010 file picture. REUTERS/Mehr News Agency/Majid Asgaripour/Files

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran is making headway toward rolling out advanced uranium enrichment machines that could speed up its production of nuclear reactor fuel as well as weapons-grade material if, as the West fears, it ultimately tries to assemble atomic bombs.

But it remains unclear whether Tehran, under increasingly strict international sanctions that crimp its ability to import key components, can manufacture the machines in industrial-scale numbers that would revolutionize its enrichment activity.

For years, Tehran has been seeking to replace the breakdown-prone 1970s vintage model of centrifuge it now uses to refine uranium, but the changeover has been hampered by sanctions restricting access to vital components, analysts say.

In a sign the Islamic state may now be making some progress, a U.N. nuclear watchdog report says Iran has begun installing two newer versions for larger-scale testing at a research and development site near the central city of Natanz.

The confidential report, obtained by Reuters on Friday, says Iran informed the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in June that it had also started to operate 54 of these more advanced machines on an experimental basis.

If Iran eventually succeeds in introducing them in industrial quantities for enrichment, it could significantly shorten the time needed to stockpile material that can have civilian as well as military purposes, if refined much further.

"The installation of ... IR-2s and IR-4s represents progress, for sure," nuclear proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick said, referring to the names of the new models.

But analysts said it was not evident that Tehran has the technical prowess and components to make them in bigger numbers.

It seems that "Iran still faces problems developing these new centrifuges, including getting sufficient materials to build them in large numbers," said Peter Crail of the Arms Control Association, a U.S.- based research and advocacy group.

In a sign that deployment of the more advanced models for production remains some time off, Iran is planning to use the old IR-1 model when it shifts higher-grade enrichment from its main Natanz plant to a bunker near the holy city of Qom.

"Although Iran could possibly use these (IR-1) machines to produce weapons-grade uranium ... it would likely prefer to develop its advanced centrifuges first," Crail said.

Iran denies Western accusations that it is covertly seeking nuclear weapons capability, saying it is refining uranium for electricity generation and medical applications.

But the IAEA report said the U.N. agency was "increasingly concerned" about possible work in Iran to develop a nuclear payload for a missile.

This and other findings in the report may provide more grist for Western condemnations of Iran's nuclear activities when the 35-nation governing board of the IAEA meets on September 12-16.

UNDERGROUND BUNKER

Tehran's refusal to shelve enrichment has drawn four rounds of U.N. sanctions, as well as increasingly tough U.S. and European punitive measures on the major oil producer.

Robert Einhorn, the U.S. State Department senior adviser for non-proliferation and arms control, said in March he did not believe the newer centrifuges were ready to be mass-produced, according to a think tank debate transcript.

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