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Iranian uranium site heightens concerns

Agency says Tehran hindered its probe

VIENNA, Austria – Iranian construction of a previously secret uranium enrichment site is at an advanced stage, with high-tech equipment already in place at the fortified facility ahead of its 2011 startup, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report Monday.

The revelation of the existence of the underground plant known as Fordo, near the holy city of Qom, has heightened concerns of other possible undeclared Iranian facilities that are not subject to IAEA oversight and therefore could be used for military purposes.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the IAEA report “underscores that Iran still refuses to comply fully with its international nuclear obligations.”

The IAEA report offered no estimate of Fordo’s capabilities, but a senior international official familiar with the U.N. agency’s work in Iran said it appeared designed to produce about a ton of enriched uranium a year.

The official, as well as analysts, said that would be enough for a nuclear warhead but too little for Iran’s civilian reactors that have yet to come online, including the still unfinished plant at the southern port of Bushehr. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the information he was citing was confidential.

“It won’t (even) be able to produce a reactor’s worth of fuel every 90 years, but it will be able to produce one bomb a year,” said Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the Strategic Security Program of the Federation of American Scientists. “It does look strange.”

The IAEA also said production at Iran’s main enrichment site at Natanz – revealed by dissidents in 2002 and under IAEA monitoring – was stagnating at mid-2009 levels.

The report did not offer a reason. But the official suggested that experts who used to work at Natanz could be preoccupied with finishing the Fordo site.

As early as three years ago, Iran had said immediate plans for Natanz were to install about 8,000 enriching centrifuges, and Monday’s report suggested Tehran had reached that goal.

The IAEA summary said that as of Nov. 2, about 8,600 centrifuges had been set up, but only about 4,000 were enriching – or 600 fewer than in September. Still, the official said output had been steady since June with about 220 pounds of enriched uranium being produced a month.

The report said Natanz had churned out nearly 4,000 pounds of uranium by Nov. 2 – close to what experts consider to be needed for two nuclear weapons. But for use as warhead material it would have to enriched further – it is now low-enriched uranium suitable only for fueling nuclear plants.

Iran insists it only wants to enrich uranium to make fuel to power nuclear reactors for civilian purposes, but fears that it could at some point use the technology to make weapons has resulted in three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions meant to pressure Tehran into freezing the activity.

The restricted document, which was obtained by the Associated Press, also noted that “for well over a year,” Iran had stonewalled IAEA efforts to investigate allegations it actively worked on a nuclear weapons program.

Unless Tehran has a change of heart, the IAEA “will not be in a position to provide credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities.”

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