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Iran has secretly developed its uranium enrichment facilities in Natanz, which is now considered the linchpin of the nation’s nuclear weapons program, reports Geostrategy-Direct, the global intelligence news service.
U.S. officials said that Iran transferred research, development and assembly operations to Natanz in an effort to transform the site into the main facility for the Iranian gas centrifuge program.
Iran has ambitious plans for Natanz. Currently, the site includes centrifuge assembly areas and a pilot fuel-enrichment plant slated to hold 1,000 centrifuges. A production-scale fuel-enrichment plant is being constructed at Natanz to house some 50,000 centrifuges.
Iran has designed its nuclear weapons program so that it could produce enough enriched uranium to construct a warhead within days, official says.
“Natanz could be operated to make low-enriched uranium fuel until Iran decided it wanted to make weapon-grade material,” David Albright and Corey Hinderstein write in the March/April 2004 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
“It wouldn’t take long to enrich the low-enriched material to weapon grade. For example, if Natanz was operating at full capacity and recycled the end product – low-enriched uranium [5 percent uranium-235] – back into the feed point, the facility could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a single weapon within days.”
Officials said Iran possesses blueprints for the construction of the advanced P2 gas centrifuge, which can enrich bomb-quality uranium in half the time of first-generation Pakistani-origin centrifuges. Iran has acknowledged possessing hundreds of P1 machines at Natanz. The International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors is scheduled to meet March 8-10 in Vienna to discuss the issue.
U.S. officials and analysts have assessed that the Iranian nuclear facilities the IAEA inspected are part of an infrastructure designed to produce up to 30 nuclear weapons annually.
The Iranian nuclear infrastructure includes both open and closed facilities, such as the Bushehr nuclear reactor, the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, the Kalaye facility and the Arak heavy water plant.
Despite Iran’s pledge to the IAEA, Tehran has continued to conceal its nuclear weapons program, including designs for the enrichment of uranium as well as experiments with polonium, an element that facilitates the chain reaction that produces a nuclear explosion, officials said.
“There’s no doubt in our mind that Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapons program,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said.
“They have not been fully forthcoming with their arrangement with the IAEA and we need to continue our effort, along with our European friends, to gain compliance.”
U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton said: “The information that the IAEA has learned is certainly consistent with the information that we had, and it’s not surprising. It’s another act of Iranian deception and not something that leads to any feeling of security, that they are carrying through on their commitment to suspend enrichment activity.”
Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said that prior to Iran’s suspension of uranium enrichment in November 2003, Tehran was conducting both single machine tests and small cascades with uranium hexafluoride at the pilot plant.
Iran was assembling four-rotor machines similar to the P1 design, each with a capacity of roughly three separative work units [swu] per year, he said.
Albright and Hinderstein, a senior researcher at the institute, said the pilot plant at Natanz could produce about 10 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium a year. This would be far less than the amount of enriched uranium required to provide fuel for all of the civilian power plants Iran intends to build over the next 20 years.
“Alternatively, the same capacity could be used to produce roughly 500 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium annually,” Albright and Hinderstein wrote. “At 15-20 kilograms per weapon, that would be enough for 25-30 nuclear weapons per year.”
Albright said U.S. and other intelligence agencies knew of Pakistan’s contribution to Iran’s nuclear weapons program as early as a decade ago. But the agencies were hampered by a lack of knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program, particularly whether it was succeeding in procuring vital components.
By the mid-1990s, Iran had succeeded in concealing its procurement of critical centrifuge components from U.S. intelligence agencies. Albright said U.S. intelligence estimates regarding the time Iran needed to build a pilot centrifuge plant proved to be reasonably accurate.
“After the mid-1990s, according to former senior U.S. government officials, U.S. intelligence agencies learned little concrete about Iran’s centrifuge progress,” Albright said. “As a result, there was little concerted action until 2002 to stop Iran’s secret centrifuge program or demand far more intrusive IAEA inspections in Iran. From 1995 until 2002, Iran moved relatively freely and secretly toward building a domestic centrifuge industry that could enrich significant quantities of uranium.”
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