Although many of the advances have not been fully implemented, the apparent progress has prompted some experts to redraw their forecasts for how quickly the country could build an atomic arsenal if it chose to do so.
The pronouncements also appear intended to counter perceptions that Iran’s nuclear program has been hobbled by a computer worm that heavily damaged the country’s main uranium enrichment facilities in a series of attacks in 2009 and 2010. During a weekend ceremony lauding the accomplishments, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that the “Iranian nation cannot be defeated,” despite sanctions and other threats.
“Not only should we be able to use all our capacities and potentials in nuclear technology, we should also export nuclear know-how,” Iran’s semiofficial broadcaster Press TV quoted the Iranian leader as saying.
The advanced centrifuges tested by Iran have been under development for several years. Experts say the new machines are far more sophisticated than the 1950s-era technology Iran has been using and will be far more efficient than their predecessors. According to the first reliable published estimates, the increase in the production of enriched uranium could be huge — an increase in output of at least 600 percent per machine.
“If they can get the new machines performing well, and in large numbers, it will make a big difference,” said Olli Heinonen, a former nuclear safeguards chief for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.
In theory, a few hundred of the new machines could produce enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in less than a year, he said.
Iran quietly notified U.N. inspectors in January that it was moving forward with plans to phase in hundreds of the sophisticated centrifuges — models dubbed IR-2M and IR-4 — at its main enrichment plant in the city of Natanz. On Saturday, Fereydoun Abbasi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said the machines had been tested and were ready for use.
Abbasi also announced that Iran’s first commercial nuclear reactor, at Bushehr, will begin operating as soon as May 5 after technicians overcome problems with the reactor’s fuel. He disclosed the start of a new production line for uranium oxide, the material from which nuclear fuel rods are made.