Iran Tells UN Monitors Uranium Enrichment Work Upgraded

Iran told United Nations monitors it’s installing new centrifuges at its Natanz facility that can enrich more uranium in less time, according to a restricted IAEA document circulated to members yesterday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency asked Iran in a Jan. 29 letter how the new IR-2m machines will be used. The Persian Gulf nation was previously testing the centrifuges, according to the one-page document that was obtained by Bloomberg News. The Vienna-based IAEA declined to comment.

“If the machine works, and Iran now is rolling it out, it could mean a dramatic increase in capacity,” Andreas Persbo, executive director of the London-based Verification Research, Training and Information Center, a non-governmental observer to the IAEA, said in an e-mailed reply to questions. Iran could “quite possibly” double its production capacity.

Enriched uranium is the heavy metal used to fuel nuclear reactors and form the core of atomic bombs. Iran, under IAEA investigation for a decade over alleged nuclear-weapons research, says it only wants atomic technology for peaceful purposes. UN monitors are negotiating with the Islamic Republic to broaden access to suspected nuclear installations, including sites where the country produces its centrifuges.

‘Cause for Concern’

The IAEA said last February that Iran had been “intermittently feeding” material into next-generation centrifuges at its research and development facility, which is also in Natanz. Iran uses first-generation IR-1 machines at the plant, located about 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of Tehran.

“This is a cause for concern,” the U.K.’s Foreign Office said in an e-mailed statement today. “Installation of advanced centrifuges would be a further breach of UN Security Council and IAEA board resolutions.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated demands that Iran freeze uranium enrichment in line with Security Council orders. Iran is under dozens of international sanctions because it’s repeatedly violated council resolutions compelling a suspension of the work.

The sanctions include trade prohibitions on high-quality steel and fiber products from carbon and glass. The possibility that Iran has become self-sufficient in producing carbon fiber, which is used to make centrifuges, “would be very worrying,” according to Persbo, who said negotiators should concentrate more on winning wider inspections of Iran than focusing on a full cessation of its atomic activities.

Breakout Time

IAEA inspectors reported on Nov. 16 that the country had increased the number of installed centrifuges at Natanz to 10,000 from about 9,150. The facility, built underground and beneath a thick layer of concrete, can hold 25,000 machines in the hall being used. Centrifuges are loaded with milled uranium hexafluoride and spin up to 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) per second to separate the Uranium-235 isotope used to generate nuclear power and bombs.

“The introduction of this machine will not affect safeguards at the plant,” Persbo said. “It will reduce breakout time” if Iran were to choose to enrich uranium to weapons-grade quality at Natanz.

Negotiations will resume shortly between Iran and world powers over the nation’s atomic program, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters in Brussels today.

“I’m confident there will be a meeting soon,” she said. “We’ve been saying to the Iranians that we want to propose dates and venues in order that we can get the discussions moving as quickly as possible.”

‘Rapidly Advancing’

Israel expressed dissatisfaction with that stance.

“While the world is discussing where and when the next meeting with Iran will be, Iran is rapidly advancing towards obtaining a nuclear bomb,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement. “The international community cannot allow Iran to arm itself with a nuclear weapon.”

The Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant was the facility detected in 2002 that triggered the IAEA’s investigation because Iran didn’t declare its construction to the agency. The country subsequently hid construction of a second facility, in Fordo, that was made public in 2009.

Fordo, built into the side of a mountain, produces most of Iran’s medium-grade enriched uranium. The facility has drawn particular attention from Israel because it would be difficult to destroy in an air strike.

“Iran’s technical capabilities will continue to develop in the uranium-enrichment field,” Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, a policy-advisory group, wrote in reply to questions. “This underlines the need for the West to be more flexible in the negotiations with Iran in order to focus agreement on bringing the tighter inspections and verification regime.”