UN Nuke Chief: Iran's Program Limited

The Associated Press
Thursday, April 12, 2007; 7:40 PM

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Thursday Iran is operating only several hundred centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, despite its claims to have activated 3,000.

Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran's nuclear program was a concern, but he discounted Tehran's claims of a major advance in uranium enrichment, a process the United Nations demands Iran suspend or else be hit by increasing sanctions.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Monday that the Natanz facility had begun "industrial-scale" production of nuclear fuel. Iran's top nuclear negotiator said workers had begun injecting uranium gas into a new array of 3,000 centrifuges, many more than the 328 centrifuges known to be operating at Natanz.

Experts say that 3,000 centrifuges would be enough in theory to develop a nuclear warhead in about a year, but they doubt Iran really had that many devices successfully running.

ElBaradei, head of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, said "Iran is still just at the beginning stages in setting up its Natanz enrichment facility."

Iran ultimately aims to operate more than 50,000 of the devices at the site.

"The talk of building a facility with 50,000 centrifuges is just at the beginning, and it is (currently) only in the hundreds," he told reporters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Diplomats in Vienna familiar with IAEA efforts also gave a much lower figure for the centrifuges. They told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that Iran was running only about 650 centrifuges in series _ the configuration that allows the machines to spin uranium gas to various levels of enrichment. And they said the machines were running empty, with none producing enriched uranium.

ElBaradei also played down suspicions that Iran is running a hidden uranium enrichment program.

"It has not been demonstrated until now that there are underground nuclear facilities in Iran working covertly, and Iran doesn't have the material that can be used to make a nuclear weapon," ElBaradei said.

But he also voiced concern over Iran's nuclear program, and demanded that Iran show transparency on the issue to reassure the international community that its intent is peaceful.

IAEA inspectors visited Natanz a week ago, and two more IAEA inspectors arrived in the country Tuesday and are due to view the facility in a few days.

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