VIENNA: Iran has installed about 1,008 advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges and is set to test them, a UN nuclear report showed, a development likely to worry Western capitals hoping for a change of course under the country’s new president.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s quarterly report — the first since relative moderate Hassan Rowhani won Iran’s June presidential election — also said the Islamic state had started making fuel assemblies for a reactor which the West fears could yield nuclear bomb material. Iran denies any such aim.
On the other hand, in what may provide relief for world powers seeking a peaceful settlement of the decade-old nuclear dispute with Iran, the planned commissioning of the Arak reactor itself has been delayed from early next year, the IAEA said.
In addition, Iran’s most sensitive nuclear stockpile has grown little — remaining below its arch-enemy Israel’s stated “red line” that could provoke military action — since the previous IAEA report in May. Iran’s possible restraint here could buy time for more negotiations with six world powers.
Growth in Iran’s reserve of uranium gas refined to 20 percent was held back as Iran stepped up conversion of the material into oxide to make fuel for a medical research reactor in Tehran. The stockpile of 186kg compares with the 240-250kg which experts say would be needed for a bomb if refined further.
The report still showed Iran pressing ahead with its nuclear programme. Separately the IAEA announced a resumption on September 27 of talks with Iran over how to get it to cooperate with an agency inquiry into “possible military dimensions” to its nuclear work. There have been 10 fruitless rounds of talks since early 2012, but the next session will be the first with Rowhani in office.
The IAEA report said Iran had fully installed a total of 1,008 new-generation centrifuges at the underground Natanz complex and was planning to test their performance ahead of feeding them with uranium material.
The machines were “under vacuum”, an important step towards starting them up, the report said. Iran, it added, had also completed preparations for installing about 2,000 more advanced centrifuges, which experts say could increase the rate of refinement by two- or three-fold. The rapid installations at a production unit at the Natanz site so far this year indicates that Iran can manufacture such equipment, at least to some extent, itself despite tightening sanctions on the country.
Centrifuges spin at supersonic speed to produce enriched uranium, which Iran says it needs to fuel a planned network of nuclear power plants. But if further refined, uranium can also provide the explosive core of a nuclear bomb. The report further said Iran had begun making nuclear fuel for its planned Arak heavy-water research reactor but had put off its commissioning beyond the planned first quarter of 2014.