Iran Doubles Uranium Capacity, But Still Short of Claimed Strength

( Lat ) - Iran has doubled its capacity to enrich uranium in the last two months but remains far from the industrial-scale capabilities that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently claimed, according to an official letter written by a senior U.N. nuclear inspector Wednesday.

The letter to Iranian officials from Olli Heinonen, a deputy director at the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed that in a visit earlier this week, inspectors had seen eight centrifuge cascades operating at a nuclear enrichment facility in the town of Natanz and that ``some uranium is being fed into those cascades.''

In a February report, inspectors wrote that they had seen four such cascades operating at the same site but none was enriching uranium. At the time, Iranian officials said they'd hoped by May to be operating 18 cascades, each one of which could enrich uranium to low levels suitable for a nuclear energy program.

Ahmadinejad and his aides said two weeks ago that Iran was now operating 3,000 centrifuges, a number that would signal significant progress in the country's effort to enrich large quantities of uranium. But on Sunday and Monday, inspectors saw a total of 1,312 centrifuge in the separate cascades. It remains unclear how effectively they are running since Iran has encountered considerable technological problems in the last two years. But if the Iranians master the centrifuge technology and are able to link the cascades and run them at high speeds for prolonged periods, they could produce enough bomb-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb. Centrifuges--built primarily out of high-strength aluminum tubes--spin uranium at high speeds in order to purify it for other uses such as fuel.

U.S. intelligence officials have estimated that Iran is five to 10 years from being able to manufacture enough uranium for a single weapon and the means to deliver it.

Iranian officials say their efforts are aimed solely at producing low-enriched uranium to fuel a future nuclear energy program. But Bush administration officials have charged that the effort is a cover for a weapons program that must be stopped. Because a large and well-run cascade system can produce either low-grade or bomb-grade uranium, U.S. officials and their Western allies have said Iran should be prevented from using the technology until there is international confidence that the country's intentions are peaceful.

According to the IAEA letter, addressed to Iran's ambassador to the agency, Tehran recently agreed, after several months of negotiations, to allow inspectors to conduct surprise visits to Natanz, install tamper-proof, 24-hour monitoring cameras directed at the cascades and take other measures that would prevent the Iranians from moving materials. ``I trust that these arrangements will be implemented as agreed,'' Heinonen wrote.

But the main objective of the letter was to take exception to an Iranian decision to end inspections at a nuclear research reactor under construction in the city of Arak. U.S. officials and U.N. Security Council resolutions have called on Iran to halt construction at Arak and Natanz or face increased economic sanctions. Iran has said it has no intention of complying.

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