New York Times: Iran declared Wednesday that it planned this year to triple production of its most concentrated form of nuclear fuel, expanding its manufacturing efforts to a mountainous, once secret nuclear site buried deep underground.
The New York Times
By DAVID E. SANGER and WILLIAM J. BROAD
Iran declared Wednesday that it planned this year to triple production of its most concentrated form of nuclear fuel, expanding its manufacturing efforts to a mountainous, once secret nuclear site buried deep underground. Atomic experts worry that the production of more concentrated fuel could bring Iran closer to the ability to rapidly make weapons-grade uranium for a bomb.
The Iran declaration signaled that, despite sanctions and repeated calls from the United Nations Security Council to cease all enrichment of uranium, Iran aims to accelerate the effort. Iran insists the work is entirely peaceful in nature.
The announcement Wednesday came only two weeks after the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear inspector, detailed with more specificity than it had done previously the technical information behind its suspicions that Iran has secretly attempted to design a nuclear weapon. Iran has, for years, refused to answer a series of questions from the agency about circumstantial evidence of weapons design that the international inspectors say they possess.
The credibility of the Iranian claim that it would accelerate production of its most concentrated uranium fuel, which is enriched to 20 percent purity, was difficult to assess. Iran is now making fuel of that concentration in whirling centrifuges at its sprawling plant at Natanz in the Iranian desert.
The announcement said that some of that production would transfer to a new generation of centrifuges at an underground, well-defended facility near the holy city of Qum.
Most uranium fuel for reactors is enriched to around 4 percent purity. Iran began producing 20 percent enriched fuel more than a year ago for what it said was the purpose of fueling a research reactor in Tehran.
But many outside experts saw that explanation as cover for moving much closer to the ability to make bomb-grade fuel, which is 90 percent purity. In terms of production efforts, it is a comparatively short leap from 20 percent enrichment to weapon fuel.
But building the new facility near Qum will require obtaining a new generation of highly efficient centrifuges at a time when the West is engaging in not only trade embargos against Iran but a series of covert efforts, including use of the computer worm called Stuxnet, to obstruct the Iranian nuclear effort.
Whether Iran has decided to make a weapon — if it could — is far from clear.
Enrichment is technically difficult, and Iran has been slowed by Stuxnet and the effects of sanctions, which make it difficult to obtain critical parts abroad. But if Iran can increase enrichment, the country will be in a better position to threaten what nuclear experts call “breakout” — a hectic dash to make a weapon. American officials have insisted that they would detect such a rush and have plenty of time to respond.
The announcement may also be designed to gain grudging acceptance of Iran’s growing capabilities.
“All of this supports a possible ongoing effort by Iran to slowly acclimatize the international community to conditions that would make a breakout to nuclear weapons more feasible,” the Institute for Science and International Security, which closely follows the Iranian nuclear program, wrote in a briefing on Wednesday.
Iran’s announcement was made by the new head of its atomic energy agency, Fereydoon Abbasi, on Iranian television after a cabinet meeting in Tehran. He said some production would be transferred from Natanz to the mountainous site near Qum, known formally as Fordow, and would be done under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Mr. Abbasi was also quoted by Iran’s Fars news agency as saying that Iranian scientists had completed research on a new generation of centrifuges for enrichment and that they would be installed “soon.”
On Monday, Yukiya Amano, the I.A.E.A.’s director general, said the agency “had received further information related to possible past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities that seem to point to the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.”
He urged Iran “to take steps towards the full implementation of all relevant obligations in order to establish international confidence” in its peaceful intentions.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington research group, said a year of Iranian enrichment to 20 percent at Fordow would make enough uranium for a nuclear weapon, if the material underwent further processing.
The Fordow site, Mr. Albright added, is “heavily fortified” and “less vulnerable to aerial strikes” than the sprawling Natanz enrichment plant in the desert.
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the Obama administration was concerned about Iran’s announcement.
“This decision would involve Iran’s stockpiling of even more near 20 percent enriched uranium without a credible use for this material in the near term,” he said. “Provocative steps such as this do not build confidence in either Iran’s interest in meaningful talks or Iran’s nuclear intent.”
David Jolly contributed reporting.