TEHRAN - Iran has moved some of its centrifuges to an underground uranium enrichment site that offers better protection from possible airstrikes, the country’s vice president said yesterday.
Engineers are “hard at work’’ preparing the facility in Fordo, which is carved into a mountain to protect it against possible attacks, to house the centrifuges, Fereidoun Abbasi was quoted as saying by state television. Abbasi did not say how many centrifuges have been moved to Fordo nor whether the machines are new, more efficient centrifuges or the old IR-1 types. He did specify that the centrifuges will be taken to Fordo from Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility in Natanz.
Uranium enrichment lies at the heart of Iran’s dispute with the West. The technology can be used to produce nuclear fuel or materials for atomic bombs. The United States and some of its allies accuse Iran of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons. Iran has denied the charges.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the new program raises suspicions.
“The Iranian nuclear program offers no plausible reasons for its existing enrichment of uranium up to nearly 20 percent, nor ramping up this production, nor moving centrifuges underground,’’ she said.
Iran has been enriching uranium to less than 5 percent for years, but it began to further enrich its stockpile to nearly 20 percent as of February 2010, saying it needs the higher grade material to produce fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical radioisotopes needed for cancer patients. Weapons-grade uranium is usually about 90 percent enriched. Iran’s higher-grade enrichment efforts are of concern to the West because uranium at 20 percent enrichment can be converted into fissile material for a nuclear warhead much more quickly than that at 3.5 percent.