Iran speeding up nuclear program, inspectors say

MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/REUTERS - International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has expressed “increasing concerns” about past — and possibly ongoing — research by Iranian scientists on nuclear warhead design.

Iran appears to be accelerating key components of its nuclear program, installing more capable machines for enriching uranium and moving some equipment into underground bunkers less vulnerable to airstrikes, U.N. nuclear inspectors said in a report Friday.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), also expressed “increasing concerns” about past — and possibly ongoing — research by Iranian scientists on nuclear warhead design, despite Iran’s repeated insistence that its nuclear program is peaceful.

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The report, based on inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities last month, repeated a litany of complaints about stonewalling by Iranian officials who have refused to allow access to key facilities or provide details about plans to build as many as 10 nuclear facilities across the country. Iran’s defiance has helped fuel fears that it is working secretly toward becoming a nuclear power.

“The Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities,” the IAEA said in its report, prepared for release at next week’s meeting of the agency’s 35-nation board of governors.

IAEA officials who visited Iran’s main uranium processing plant near the city of Natanz confirmed that Iran is operating more advanced centrifuge machines for making enriched uranium. Two new centrifuge models — estimated by nuclear experts to be six times as productive as the centrifuges they replaced— were processing uranium when inspectors toured the plant, the watchdog organization said. Iran had told the IAEA in January that it planned to upgrade its machines.

Iran also is making good on promises to begin enriching uranium in a newly built bunker near the city of Qom. The formerly secret site, discovered by Western intelligence operatives and revealed to the world in September 2009, is being used to create a more highly enriched form of uranium, Iranian scientists told the IAEA.

Iran says the more highly enriched fuel is needed for a medical research reactor, but U.S. officials and weapons scientists say the type of uranium produced at Qom can be easily and quickly converted into weapons-grade uranium for nuclear bombs. Iran has announced plans for making large quantities of the advanced form of uranium, enough to supply its existing medical research reactor for many decades.

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