AP: SAGHAND, Iran - Iran's campaign to develop nuclear fuel starts deep under this barren patch of desert, in a mine that engineers expect to start yielding uranium ore in less than two years.
Elsewhere in central Iran, the ore will be processed into yellowcake powder and then into uranium hexaflouride gas, and the gas injected into centrifuges to be enriched into fuel. Associated Press

ALI AKBAR DAREINI

SAGHAND, Iran - Iran's campaign to develop nuclear fuel starts deep under this barren patch of desert, in a mine that engineers expect to start yielding uranium ore in less than two years.

Elsewhere in central Iran, the ore will be processed into yellowcake powder and then into uranium hexaflouride gas, and the gas injected into centrifuges to be enriched into fuel. Enriched uranium can be used to generate electricity, which is all the Iranians say they want, or to make nuclear warheads, as Washington accuses Tehran of plotting to do.

Iranians say their nuclear program is a matter of pride and practicality. Iranian officials argue they need to develop other sources of energy for the day their oil reserves run out. They add they see no reason why some of mankind's most advanced technology should be off limits to their scientists.

The nuclear fuel program is "our blood, our national security, our identity," Ghasem Soleimani, the British-trained director of mining operations at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told The Associated Press during the first visit by an international news organization to a site related to Iran's nuclear fuel program.

The weekend tour of Saghand, some 300 miles south of Tehran, fits in with Iran's efforts to show the world its nuclear projects are transparent and peaceful ahead of a U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting later this month. Washington hopes to get enough support at that meeting to have Iran referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

Iran says it won't give up the program even at the risk of sanctions but has offered guarantees that it is not making a bomb.

While Tehran has not specified what sort of guarantees it is prepared to give, it has said it is willing to accept any strict monitoring of its facilities by the IAEA.

"Saghand is Iran's most advanced mine," Soleimani said proudly. "It shows the ultimate in Iran's mining technology."

Saghand consists of an open pit and a deep mine reached by two shafts, each more than 1,000 feet long. It holds about 1.73 million tons of average quality uranium ore. The mine has a capacity of 132,000 tons of uranium ore per year - enough to produce about 60 tons of yellowcake, Iranian scientists say.

David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and a former weapons inspector in Iraq, has said that 40 tons of yellowcake would yield four to five atomic bombs. In that case, Iran theoretically could produce about seven bombs a year, although many factors could affect that result.

Put to energy use, the 60 tons of yellowcake would be converted to hexafluoride gas and ultimately result in about six tons of low-enriched uranium, enough to run a 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor for two to three months.

The mine employs more than 220 people, who were clad in black uniforms, yellow boots and helmets equipped with lamps. All are Iranian, but that was not always the case. Chinese experts worked at Saghand as recently as 2002, Soleimani said.

A giant elevator sped down the main shaft, which splits off into several horizontal branches. A large ventilator pumped fresh air into the shafts, which were a cool respite from the hot, dry conditions above.

The nearest village is 25 miles to the north. The scene is arid desert and low hills, though there are plans to plant trees to create a green rest area.

President Mohammad Khatami announced in February 2003 that his country would mine uranium at Saghand. Today, Soleimani said, over 77 percent of the work has been accomplished.

Engineers have completed a ring way connecting routes inside the mine. But they still have to create underground workshops and open more tunnels to the core of the mine, which covers less than one square mile.

Workers used pneumatic drills to dig small holes in which explosives were placed, then detonated.

According to Soleimani, potential uranium mines have been identified in other parts of the country, mainly central and southern Iran, but so far only studies have been conducted on those sites.

Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's former envoy to the IAEA and now a senior government adviser, sought to ease concerns about his country's nuclear ambitions. Iran does not have the equipment in nearby Natanz, where the uranium is to be enriched, to produce weapons-grade uranium, he said in an interview.

"To produce a bomb, you need vast facilities, including thousands of advanced centrifuges, cascaded in a special pattern, to work for a long time to produce enough weapons-grade enriched uranium," he said.

"The equipment in Natanz have been arranged so that they can't do that and IAEA cameras have already been installed there watching the facility 24 hours a day."

But Jon Wolfthal, a nuclear scientist at the Washington-based Non-Proliferation Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Iran can easily switch its equipment to produce weapons-grade uranium.

"Rearranging a cascade to produce weapons-grade uranium - up to and even above 90 percent - is a technically simple process and the configuration of the cascade cannot be seen as any kind of protection that a peaceful facility will not be used to produce weapons-usable materials," he wrote in an e-mail interview from Washington.

Salehi said that with IAEA cameras at the site, Iran would not be able to rearrange the cascades.

"Iran has opened its facilities to adequate IAEA inspection, is already allowing intrusive inspection of its facilities including military sites. This means Iran is not worried that the IAEA closely watches its activities to make sure that its nuclear activities won't be diverted from a peaceful path," he said.

Wolfthal said that while building a nuclear weapon is complex, it was "well within the ability of a country like Iran," and much of the work could be done in secret.

"Iran could - should it make a decision to produce nuclear weapons - move from a purely peaceful to a military program quite quickly," he said.