Iran adding advanced equipment to uranium plant, U.N. nuclear watchdog says

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; 11:55 PM

Iran appears to be preparing to scale up its production of enriched uranium with advanced new equipment, according to a new U.N. report that also chastises the country's leaders for failing to answer questions about alleged nuclear weapons research.

The report, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released to its board of governors on Friday, also includes fresh evidence that Iran has contained the damage inflicted to its existing uranium plant by apparent cyberattacks in the past two years. The nuclear watchdog said Iran was boosting its enriched-uranium stockpile at a steady or slightly higher rate compared with production before the attack.

In an unusual step, IAEA officials catalogued a list of Iranian failures and shortcomings, criticizing the Islamic republic in particular for stonewalling U.N. efforts to investigate alleged nuclear weapons studies by Iranian scientists.

The report cited "recently received" evidence, in addition to a large body of documents that have surfaced in recent years, pointing to possible Iranian research into nuclear warhead design. U.N. officials have said they think the work continued until at least 2004 and possibly beyond. Iran has insisted its nuclear program is solely for civilian energy purposes.

"The agency remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities," the agency said in its report, a confidential summary of recent findings on Iran prepared for a meeting next month of the IAEA's board of governors. Iran's refusal to provide information over the past two years has made it impossible to "provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran," the report said.

Iran's uranium plant at Natanz uses thousands of machines called centrifuges to make enriched uranium, and until now its has relied on an older model that uses 1950s technology. But for the first time, Iran has formally notified the IAEA that it will soon begin installing hundreds of more-sophisticated centrifuges in a pilot facility near the main uranium plant, the report said.

The new types of machines, called IR2Ms and IR4s, are thought to be far more efficient than the IR1s that Iran now uses, said David Albright, a nuclear weapons expert and president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

"These are fairly advanced machines," Albright said.

He said the new machines could allow Iran not only to enrich more uranium faster but also to operate smaller uranium facilities that might be easier to hide from satellites and spies.

While the number of new machines may be small at first, the fact that Iran is putting them into production suggests that its ability to make the machines - and to acquire the special metals and parts to build them - is more significant than many experts had thought.

The IAEA report showed Iran producing low-enriched uranium at a rate of just less than 300 pounds a month, roughly on par with production rates this past fall. Weapons experts say the steady production shows Iran has been largely successful in containing the damage caused by Stuxnet, a computer worm that Iranian officials acknowledge penetrated the plant's computer system in late 2009 and early 2010. Yet, while the total volume of uranium has remained constant, the output of individual centrifuge machines has slipped slightly, the report said.

Iran is believed to have lost roughly a tenth of its centrifuges as a result of the cyberattacks, but its scientists have managed to replace the tainted equipment.

"It looks like the Iranians are slowly recovering from whatever happened in 2009, whether it was Stuxnet or something else," said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation. "The number of cascades being fed with uranium hexafluoride keeps increasing every few months."

The underground plant at Natanz has produced nearly 31/2 tons of low-enriched uranium, which Iran says it plans to convert into fuel for its nuclear power plant. The uranium could also make at least two nuclear bombs, if Iran were to process it further.

The report also confirmed a setback to Iran's plans to begin operations at its newly completed nuclear power plant near the southern city of Bushehr. Plant officials last month informed the IAEA of plans to remove fuel rods from the plant, effectively delaying the start of electricity production. No explanation was given for the move; nuclear weapons experts say it is unlikely that the Bushehr plant was significantly affected by the Stuxnet worm.

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