Iran Said to Test an Advanced Centrifuge

( Los Angeles Times ) - Iran is testing an advanced centrifuge designed to more swiftly produce enriched uranium in defiance of Security Council resolutions ordering it to stop, diplomats confirmed Thursday.

The centrifuges are still in the early testing stages, and are not being used to enrich nuclear material, said diplomats familiar with information from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"It is significant that they were able to make this more advanced, more reliable centrifuge in just about two years," said David Albright, a nuclear expert and former U.N. inspector. "It is also a troubling development that they could develop it in secret and be close to enriching uranium with it."

He said it did not change the estimate of his organization, the Institute for Science and International Security, that the earliest Iran could have a nuclear weapon is by the end of 2009.

U.S. intelligence agencies in December issued an assessment saying they had concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The intelligence agencies said Iran ended covert efforts to produce highly enriched uranium suitable for use in a bomb, but made it clear that it could resume its efforts at any time.

Enriched uranium can be used in the process to generate electricity or to produce material for a bomb, depending on the degree of enrichment.

Iran insists that it has the right to develop nuclear technology for civilian use, and has rejected the U.N. Security Council's calls to halt enrichment and the IAEA's requests to allow closer inspections. The IAEA says that Iran must rebuild confidence after keeping its nuclear program secret for nearly 20 years, and buying black market technology.

The centrifuge seems to be based on a P2 design obtained illicitly in 1995 from the network of rogue Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Iran notified the IAEA in 2006 it was working on the faster design, known as a modified P2, or as Iran calls it, the IR-2 but refused to let inspectors see it.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei got the first look at the centrifuge in January when he visited a workshop in Tehran.

The diplomats asked that their names not be used because they were not authorized to comment about the matter.

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