Iran seeks to boost nuclear work in bunker: diplomats (REUTERS) By Fredrik Dahl VIENNA, AUSTRIA 02/23/12)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Iran is believed to be carrying out preparations to
expand nuclear activity deep inside a mountain, diplomats say, in a
further sign of defiance in the face of intensifying Western pressure
to curb its sensitive uranium enrichment drive.
Increased capacity at the Fordow underground site would probably
heighten Western suspicion of Iran´s intentions, after it last month
started refining uranium there to a level that cuts the time it would
need for any nuclear weapons bid.
A senior team of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) failed
again this week to get the Islamic state to start addressing their
mounting concerns about its nuclear work and returned empty handed to
Vienna after two days of talks in Iran.
The setback increased worries about a downward spiral towards
conflict between the Islamic Republic and the West, and sent oil
prices to a nine-month high.
The U.N. agency is now putting the finishing touches to its next
report on Iran, expected to include information on the Tehran talks
as well as more detail on the status of the Fordow plant near the
Shi´ite Muslim holy city of Qom.
"I think we will see a jump in the potential state of readiness of
the facility," one Vienna-based envoy said.
Fordow is of particular concern for the West and Israel as Iran is
shifting the most controversial aspect of its nuclear work, refining
uranium to a level that takes it significantly closer to potential
bomb material, to the site.
Estimated to be buried beneath 80 meters (265 feet) of rock and soil,
it gives Iran better protection against any Israeli or U.S. military
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has warned that the Islamic
state´s nuclear research could soon pass into what he called a "zone
of immunity," protected from outside disruption.
In a report issued on Thursday, the International Crisis Group think-
tank said prospects for a military confrontation erupting in the long-
running nuclear row, though still unlikely, appeared "higher than
"As Israel sees it, the nuclear program represents a serious threat;
the time when Iran´s putative efforts to build a bomb will become
immune to a strike is fast approaching; and military action in the
near future - perhaps as early as this year - therefore is a real
possibility," it said.
A Western official said Fordow was a very sensitive issue:
"I´m not quite sure the Iranians understand they are playing with
Iran last month said it had started to refine uranium to a fissile
concentration of 20 percent, compared with the 3.5 percent normally
used for nuclear power plants, at Fordow.
Soon afterwards, it doubled production capacity to a total of more
than 600 uranium enrichment centrifuges at Fordow, diplomats have
Iran now appears to be making preparations for a further increase in
the number of the cylindrical machines, spinning at supersonic speeds
to increase the concentration of the fissile U-235 isotope, at the
"They are working towards full installation," said another diplomat
in the Austrian capital. "But they are not installed and ready to
Nuclear bombs require uranium enriched to 90 percent, but Western
experts say much of the effort required to get there is already
achieved once it reaches 20 percent concentration, shortening the
time needed for any nuclear weapons "break-out."
Olli Heinonen, a former head of safeguards inspections at the U.N.
International Atomic Energy Agency, said he believed its next report
would include information about the progress in setting up the
required infrastructure for enrichment at Fordow.
But diplomats said they expected Iran to mainly keep using old-
generation centrifuges, not the newer and more efficient models which
it has tried for several years to develop.
"I don´t have any indications that cascades of new machines are ready
to be operated," one of them said.
Neither Iranian officials nor officials at the Vienna-based IAEA,
which regularly inspects Iranian nuclear sites including Fordow, were
available for comment.
The United States and its allies say Iran is trying to develop the
means to make atomic bombs. The Islamic Republic maintains that its
nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity and isotopes for
Iran said last year that it would transfer its highest-grade uranium
refinement work to Fordow from an above-ground research and
development facility at its main enrichment plant at Natanz, and
sharply boost capacity.
It says it will use 20 percent-enriched uranium to convert into fuel
for a research reactor making isotopes to treat cancer patients, but
Western officials say they doubt Iran has the capability to do that
on an industrial scale.
In addition, they say, Fordow´s capacity - up to 3,000 centrifuges -
is too small to produce the fuel needed for nuclear power plants, but
ideal for yielding smaller amounts of high-enriched product typical
of a nuclear weapons program.
Western officials believe Iran has not yet decided whether it will
indeed "weaponize" enrichment, but rather is seeking now solely to
establish the industrial and scientific capacity to do so if needed
for military and security contingencies.
Iran disclosed the existence of Fordow to the IAEA only in September
2009, at least two years after construction began, after learning
that Western spy services had detected it. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)
(© Thomson Reuters 2012. 02/23/12)
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