Iran may be "struggling" with new nuclear machines (REUTERS) By Fredrik Dahl VIENNA, AUSTRIA 02/27/12 9:30am EST)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Iran is still relying on old technology to expand its
nuclear program, in what may be a sign it is having difficulties
developing modern machines that could speed up production of
potential bomb material.
A report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog last week said Iran was
significantly stepping up its uranium enrichment, a finding that sent
oil prices higher on fears tensions between with the West could
escalate into military conflict.
Israel has threatened to launch pre-emptive strikes to prevent Iran
getting the bomb and Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said Tehran´s
continued technological progress mean it could soon pass into a "zone
of immunity," suggesting time was running out for an effective
But, contrary to some Western media reports in the run-up to Friday´s
International Atomic Energy Agency report, Iran does not yet seem
ready to deploy advanced enrichment equipment for large-scale
production, despite years of testing.
Instead, the IAEA document showed Iran was preparing to install
thousands more centrifuges based on an erratic and outdated design,
both in its main enrichment plant at Natanz and in a smaller facility
at Fordow buried deep underground.
"It appears that they are still struggling with the advanced
centrifuges," said Olli Heinonen, a former chief nuclear inspector
for the Vienna-based U.N. agency.
"We do not know whether the reasons for delays are lack of raw
materials or design problems," he said.
Iran says it is refining uranium to fuel a planned network of nuclear
power plants so that it can export more of its oil and gas. The
United States and its allies accuse it of a covert bid to acquire
nuclear weapons capability.
Tehran often trumpets technical advances in its nuclear program,
including the development of new centrifuges - machines that spin at
supersonic speed to increase the concentration of the fissile
material in uranium.
In mid-February, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran now had
a "fourth generation" centrifuge that could refine uranium three
times faster than previously.
"Iran unveiled a third-generation model two years ago and then never
said more about it," said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International
Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
"Now it says it has a fourth-generation model, which is probably a
variation of the problematic second-generation machines."
MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION
The IAEA, which regularly inspects Iran´s declared nuclear sites, has
little access to facilities where centrifuges are assembled and the
agency´s knowledge of possible centrifuge progress is mainly limited
to what it can observe at Natanz.
Asked whether Iran may keep more advanced centrifuges at a location
which U.N. inspectors were not aware of, an official familiar with
the issue said: "That is, of course, the million dollar question."
If Iran eventually succeeded in introducing the newer models for
production, it could significantly shorten the time needed to
stockpile enriched uranium, which can generate electricity or, if
processed much further, nuclear explosions.
But it is unclear whether Tehran, subject to increasingly strict
international sanctions, has the means and components to make the
more sophisticated machines in bigger numbers.
"Iran has been testing its second-generation models for several years
but they do not appear to be ready for full-scale use yet," said
analyst Peter Crail of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-
based research and advocacy group.
"Iran´s ability to mass produce them is also uncertain."
The U.N. Security Council has long called on Iran to suspend uranium
enrichment and Tehran´s failure to comply has earned it four rounds
of sanctions, as well much tougher U.S. and European Union measures
that take direct aim at its biggest export, oil.
Western experts say Iran´s stockpile of low-enriched uranium could be
enough for about four atomic bombs if refined much more, should the
Iranian leadership decide to do so.
"CRACK THE CODE"
Iran has for years been trying to develop centrifuges with several
times the capacity of the 1970s-vintage, IR-1 version it now uses for
the most sensitive part of its atomic activities.
Marking a potential step forward, Iran last year started installing
larger numbers of more modern IR-4 and IR-2m models for testing at a
research and development site at the enrichment facility near the
central town of Natanz.
But last week´s IAEA report suggested Iran was encountering problems
testing them in interlinked networks known as cascades, said David
Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security
(ISIS) think tank.
"The testing of advanced-centrifuge production-scale cascades ... is
going far more slowly than expected," he said in an analysis.
Iran´s "advanced centrifuge program appears troubled," the ISIS
The IAEA said Iran had informed it in early February of plans to
install three new types of centrifuge - IR-5, IR-6 and IR-6s - as
single machines at the Natanz R&D site.
When so many models are tested simultaneously, "it indicates that
Iran has not yet reached a point where it can decide which would be
the next generation centrifuge to be deployed," Heinonen, now at
Harvard University´s Belfer Center for Science and International
Fitzpatrick said: "Sooner or later Iran will probably crack the code
on advanced centrifuges and introduce them in larger numbers, but so
far that hasn´t been possible." (Editing by Robin Pomeroy) (© Thomson
Reuters 2012. 02/27/12)
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