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« Optimism as North Korea readies for nuclear talks | Main | Manning seals legacy with Super Bowl win »

February 05, 2007

Iran installs 328 centrifuges at atomic site: sources

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has installed two cascades of 164 centrifuges each in its underground nuclear plant, laying a basis for full-scale enrichment of uranium and upping the stakes in a standoff with the West, European diplomats said on Monday.

Mon Feb 5, 2007 8:50am ET

By Mark Heinrich

The cascades were to be test-run shortly, without uranium feedstock inside, and fuel material would then be added if the tests were successful, they said.

The 328 centrifuges would be the vanguard of 3,000 planned for installation in the coming months.

Iran recently finished installing piping, electrical cables and other equipment needed to begin so-called "industrial-scale" enrichment in the vast subterranean complex, which is fortified and ringed by anti-aircraft guns in the central Iranian desert.

Firing up the cascades would dramatically sharpen Iran's confrontation with Western powers that pushed through limited U.N. sanctions on Tehran six weeks ago to try to curb what they suspect is a disguised effort to assemble atomic bombs.

The Islamic Republic, the world's No. 4 oil producer, says it wants solely civilian atomic energy from uranium enrichment.

Diplomats said the installation of the first two cascades was likely to be the gist of Iran's planned announcement of "significant" nuclear progress on February 11, when it caps anniversary celebrations of its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"Two cascades have been installed in the underground plant, but they are not yet being run with gas," said a European Union diplomat in Vienna, headquarters of the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has inspectors at Natanz.

"Their plan is to start dry-spinning the cascades within days and then start feeding them with UF6 (uranium feedstock gas)," the diplomat told Reuters, alluding to findings during recent visits by IAEA inspectors.

"The Iranians appear to intend to have about six cascades (about 1,000 centrifuges) installed by the spring, and the rest of the 3,000 by around June." Iran plans to rig up a total of 54,000 centrifuges at Natanz in the longer term.

A diplomat from another EU state gave an identical account.

IAEA REPORT TO SECURITY COUNCIL PENDING

There was no immediate IAEA comment. Such confidential information would be wrapped into a report the IAEA must deliver to the U.N. Security Council on February 21 on whether Iran has heeded a demand to stop enriching uranium.

If not, Iran faces the threat of broader sanctions.

"Iran is heading in the opposite direction from that sought by the Security Council," said the first EU diplomat.

Iranian media have repeatedly quoted hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying February 11 will be a day to "prove the Iranian nation's obvious right" to nuclear technology.

Three-thousand centrifuges going nonstop could purify enough uranium for one bomb within a year, assuming Iran wants one.

Tehran has run two pilot cascades of 164 centrifuges in a small research-level wing of Natanz for months, enriching token amounts of uranium but more often "dry-spinning" them.

But Iran has struggled to get centrifuges to spin smoothly in unison without overheating or vibrations for sustained periods -- the key to producing volumes of enriched uranium.

Analysts say that even if Iran has 3,000 on line in Natanz by June, no sure thing given a litany of previous delays, it may well need another year to iron out technical glitches and a further year to generate usable quantities of nuclear fuel.

Therefore, ElBaradei has said plenty of time remains for the major world powers and Iran to resuscitate negotiations on a compromise capping Iran's program short of "industrial scale" with trade benefits for Tehran in the bargain.

He has said a last-resort, pre-emptive strike on Iran mooted in the United States and Israel would be disastrous by inflaming the whole Middle East and giving Iranian radicals an excuse to pull Tehran out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But a war of nerves between Iran and the West is worsening.

As Washington moved a second aircraft carrier group into the Gulf, Iran barred entry to 38 IAEA inspectors with Western nationality, among the 200 designated to work in the country.

Diplomats close to the IAEA say Iran has also held up the installation of IAEA cameras to monitor the underground Natanz hall, although Tehran has strongly denied this.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in Berlin and Edmund Blair in Tehran)

Posted by Publisher at February 5, 2007 01:10 PM

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