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Iran's nuclear capability on verge of leap, experts say

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, the Washington Post reported Saturday, citing 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, according to the officials, who requested anonymity while discussing sensitive intelligence about Iran's nuclear program.

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 new machine — based on photos — suggests that it could be up to five times more productive than 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 it another two years, or more, to assemble enough machines to make enough 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 2 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 new centrifuge at a still-unknown facility.

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.

An analysis by the nonprofit Institute for Science and International Security concluded that the new machine is made of rare, hard-to-make metals such as carbon fiber, and has been substantially redesigned to increase efficiency. While Iran has offered no test data, the machine appears "theoretically capable" of producing enriched uranium at a rate five times faster than the old centrifuges, the Washington-based nuclear research group said.

David Albright, ISIS president and co-author of the analysis, said it is legitimate to suspect that a new centrifuge plant is under construction.

Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's nuclear energy chief, was vague when asked during a CBS interview about new facilities.

"We say start — we probably will start — another site this year," Salehi said.

Iran's nuclear capability on verge of leap, experts say 05/01/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 10:43pm]

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