Friday, February 24, 2006

Iran Pressing on with Uranium Enrichment

Channel News Asia:
Iran is now operating a 10-centrifuge cascade in a step forward in uranium enrichment, despite Western fears it is seeking atom bombs, diplomats told AFP Friday ahead of a crunch UN nuclear report next week.

The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "will confirm that Iran is now running 10 centrifuges ... linked by piping" at a facility in Natanz, loading them with the required feedstock gas, a diplomat said. READ MORE

Enriched uranium can be fuel for nuclear power reactors or the raw material for atom bombs.

The report will include an assessment on Iran's nuclear program, which the IAEA is to forward to the UN Security Council following the agency's board of governors meeting in Vienna on March 6.

The IAEA earlier this month referred Iran to the world body, which could impose sanctions, but put off any action until after the report.

This left time for last-minute diplomacy which has accelerated as the board meeting nears, particularly by Russia and China, which each have vetos on the Council and are seeking a diplomatic solution that will keep the dossier at the IAEA.

Iran is promising last-minute cooperation with an IAEA investigation, but one diplomat dismissed it as an attempt "to neutralize the adverse report the IAEA director is expected to submit" to the March 6 board.

A Western diplomat said: "I think it is fair to say that Western countries are deeply skeptical that Iran is prepared at this late date to offer the cooperation that the IAEA is requesting."

The IAEA has been investigating Tehran's program for over three years, and has unanswered questions about Iranian centrifuge work as well as various designs and projects "which could have a military nuclear dimension and which appear to have administrative interconnections," according to the most recent IAEA report on January 31.

A diplomat close to the IAEA said the new report is expected to be released to the 35 board member states on Monday.

Iran had earlier this month began small-scale uranium enrichment work in defiance of the IAEA's call to suspend this activity.

Uranium enrichment is seen as a red line by the United States and European Union in the dispute, as it is the so-called "breakout capacity" for making atomic weapons.

Iran had started this month with single, stand-alone centrifuges but is progressing, as shown by putting together a cascade, the diplomats said.

Arranged in series, or cascades, that can number thousands, the centrifuges spin uranium gas to distill out the U-235 isotope, whose quantity determines the level of enrichment.

A diplomat, who like others interviewed asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the 10-centrifuge cascade cannot enrich uranium very far, "maybe to one percent or slightly more," far below the three to five percent needed for nuclear fuel and the over 90 percent preferred for atomic weapons.

Nor could it make large amounts, as even the 164-pilot cascade the Iranians want to start in Natanz would take years to make enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb.

Tehran wants eventually to install over 50,000 centrifuges in Natanz for industrial-scale enrichment.

A Western diplomat told AFP: "If Iran is able to master the technology of uranium enrichment ... it would be able to apply that technology to a covert program to manufacture nuclear weapons."

Iran says its nuclear program is a peaceful effort to generate electricity and that it has a right under international law to enrich uranium.