Iran's advances in nuclear technology spark new concerns about weapons

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010

VIENNA -- Iran is poised to make a significant leap in its ability to enrich uranium, with more sophisticated centrifuge technology that is being assembled in secret to advance the country's nuclear efforts, according to U.S. and European intelligence officials and diplomats.

Iran's apparent gains in centrifuge technology have heightened concerns that the government is working clandestinely on a uranium-enrichment plant capable of producing more nuclear fuel at a much faster pace, the officials said.

U.N. nuclear monitors have not been allowed to examine the new centrifuge, which Iranian officials briefly put on display at a news conference last month. But an expert group's analysis of the machine -- based on photos -- suggests that it could be up to five times as productive as the balky centrifuges Iran currently uses to enrich uranium.

Assuming the country has so far produced only prototypes of the centrifuge, it will probably take two years, or more, for Iran to assemble enough machines to make sufficient enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. After that, though, Iran would be in a position to ramp up production dramatically, depending on how many machines it decides to install.

Using its existing centrifuges, Iran has made more than two tons of low-enriched uranium, an amount that officials say could be further enriched to produce enough weapons-grade material for a single nuclear bomb, even as the government insists that its nuclear program is exclusively for energy production.

Iran's progress on a new centrifuge coincides with a marked decline in activity at its two known uranium-enrichment plants, sources said, spurring speculation that it plans to use the machine at a still-unknown facility.

One of the known plants, a small, heavily fortified facility built in a mountain tunnel near the city of Qom, has been all but idle in recent months. Construction has slowed to a near halt in the weeks since the facility was publicly revealed in September, according to two Europe-based diplomats privy to intelligence reports about the site.

"They seem to have lost interest in Qom since its discovery," said the diplomat, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence about Iran's nuclear program. "It makes us wonder if they're thinking about a new site."

A second diplomat confirmed that inspectors had seen a sharp drop-off in activity at Qom, prompting questions about the whereabouts of scores of highly trained scientists and workers seen there during visits six months ago. "They do not have enough trained people to work in multiple places," the official said.

Iran's largest enrichment facility, an underground complex near the city of Natanz, also appears to have stalled. Originally built to house 50,000 first-generation centrifuges known as IR1s, Natanz had only about 3,800 functioning machines when U.N. inspectors visited in late January, compared with nearly 5,000 working IR1s the previous spring.

In uranium enrichment, centrifuges spin a gasified form of uranium at supersonic speeds to create the enriched fuel used in commercial nuclear power plants, as well as in nuclear weapons.

The IR1 centrifuge used at Natanz is based on a 1950s Dutch design that Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan stole and sold to the Iranians. The machine is prone to crashing, and it was quickly abandoned by other countries that used it.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company