Iran Could Field New Centrifuges at Secret Site, Officials Say

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Diplomatic and intelligence officials in Europe and the United States fear Iran might intend to deploy higher-speed centrifuges at an undeclared facility for producing enriched uranium, the Washington Post reported yesterday (see GSN, April 30).

A prototype Iranian centrifuge unveiled last month appeared to be two or more generations more advanced than the machines that comprise the bulk of the country’s uranium enrichment capability, diplomatic officials and nuclear analysts said (see GSN, April 9). Western governments have expressed concern that Iran’s uranium enrichment program could generate nuclear bomb fuel, but Tehran has defended its nuclear work as a purely civilian effort.

The new centrifuge was “probably an IR-5,” a diplomat said, noting that it was unclear to U.N. officials how Iran built the machine or where it received support for its creation. The prototype device could be capable of enriching uranium five times faster than the earlier machines, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security concluded from an analysis of photographs.

“We don’t know where these are supposed to be going,” the diplomat added. Iran has stepped down work at its Natanz and Qum uranium enrichment facilities, sources indicated, suggesting Tehran planned to field the updated machines at a clandestine site.

Construction on the still-unfinished Qum facility came to a virtual standstill after the site’s existence became public knowledge last year, two diplomats in Europe said (see GSN, Sept. 25, 2009). The Iranians “seem to have lost interest in Qum since its discovery,” one of the officials said. “It makes us wonder if they’re thinking about a new site.”

The slowdown in work on the Qum facility raised concerns about the assignments of nuclear specialists and workers seen at the site last year, the other diplomat noted. “They do not have enough trained people to work in multiple places,” the diplomat said.

If Iran has only built prototypes of the new centrifuge to date, the country would likely need at least two more years to build an adequate number of the machines to generate enough material for a single weapon. Beyond that point, the nation might be able to sharply increase its production of nuclear-weapon material.

It was uncertain how Iran would obtain uranium for use at a clandestine enrichment facility, ISIS head David Albright noted (Joby Warrick, Washington Post, May 2).

Meanwhile, a senior Iranian official advised his country against exchanging its stockpiled uranium for more refined material outside its borders, the World Jewish Congress reported.

Iran rejected a U.N. proposal calling for France and Russia to enrich 1,200 kilograms of the nation’s stockpiled uranium for use at a medical research reactor in Tehran. The proposal was aimed at deferring Tehran’s ability to fuel a nuclear weapon long enough to more fully address U.S. and European concerns about its potential nuclear bomb-making capability. Iranian leaders have maintained that their atomic ambitions are strictly peaceful. Iran has offered only to trade stockpiled uranium for pre-enriched medical reactor fuel in a simultaneous exchange on its territory.

“We must be very naive to trust the West. … Why do they insist on swapping nuclear fuel abroad? It shows they have satanic intentions,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“Iran will never trust the West to send its low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad,” Velayati said (World Jewish Congress release, April 30).