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Diplomats scrutinize Iran nuclear plant

Say it is the right size to generate warhead material

By George Jahn
Associated Press / November 13, 2009

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VIENNA - Iran’s recently revealed uranium enrichment hall is a highly fortified underground space that appears too small to house a civilian nuclear program, but large enough to serve for military activities, diplomats told the Associated Press yesterday.

Iran began building the facility near the holy city of Qom seven years ago, and after bouts of fitful construction could finish the project in a year, the diplomats said. Both the construction timeline and the size of the facility - inspected last month by the International Atomic Energy Agency - are significant in helping shed light on Tehran’s true nuclear intentions.

Iran says it wants to enrich only to make atomic fuel for energy production, but the West fears it could retool its program to churn out fissile warhead material. One of the diplomats - a senior official from a European nation - said yesterday that the enrichment hall is too small to house the tens of thousands of centrifuges needed for peaceful industrial nuclear enrichment, but is the right size to contain the few thousand advanced machines that could generate the amount of weapons-grade uranium needed to make nuclear warheads.

The pauses in construction may reflect Tehran’s determination to keep its activities secret as far back as 2002, when Iran’s clandestine nuclear program was revealed.

Citing satellite imagery, the diplomats said Iran started building the plant in 2002, paused for two years in 2004 - the same year it suspended enrichment on an international demand - and resumed construction in 2006, when enrichment was also restarted. Since then, Iran has defied three sets of UN Security Council sanctions aimed at forcing it to again freeze uranium enrichment.

All of the diplomats have access to information compiled by the IAEA, and demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential matters with the AP.

Iran informed the IAEA only in September that it was building the facility near Qom, leading US, British, and French leaders to denounce Tehran for keeping its existence secret. IAEA inspectors visited the plant last month.

Iran says it fulfilled its legal obligations when it revealed the plant’s construction, though IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has said Tehran was “outside the law’’ and should have informed his agency when the decision to construct was made.

Western officials suspicious of Tehran’s nuclear program believe the Islamic Republic decided to inform the IAEA only after it became convinced that the plant’s existence had been noted by foreign intelligence services.

The Qom facility is the second known Iranian plant designed for enrichment. The first facility, at Natanz, revealed by Iranian dissidents in 2002, has since grown to house about 9,000 centrifuges and has churned enough low-enriched uranium for one or two warheads.

Low-enriched material is suitable for what Iran says will be a nationwide nuclear power grid. But that stockpile can be enriched further to weapons grade warhead material.

After years of expansion, the Natanz program, which relies on antiquated centrifuges based on black market imports, appears to be running into problems associated with increasing the number of operating centrifuges.

The senior diplomat said Iran was using only about 5,000 of the centrifuges set up at Natanz, which were turning out about 80 kilograms - less than 200 pounds - of low-enriched uranium a month. That, he said, amounted to roughly the same output using the same number of machines as in September, when the IAEA last reported on Iran to its 35 board member nations.

The facility near Qom appears designed to shelter fewer but more modern models configured to churn out more enriched material faster.

International hopes that Iran was ready for at least a partial concession on enrichment were raised after Tehran signaled in early October that it was ready to send most of its enriched Natanz stockpile abroad to be turned into metal fuel for its small research reactor.

Since then, Iranian officials have overwhelmingly - if unofficially - rejected exporting most of their enriched uranium.