Updated Iranian Centrifuges Seen Enabling Faster Nuke Fuel Production

Military personnel man an antiaircraft gun at Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment complex in 2006. The Obama administration suspects next-generation enrichment centrifuge technology could halve the time Iran would require to generate enough nuclear material for a bomb, according to U.S. officials (Behrouz Mehri/Getty Images).
Military personnel man an antiaircraft gun at Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment complex in 2006. The Obama administration suspects next-generation enrichment centrifuge technology could halve the time Iran would require to generate enough nuclear material for a bomb, according to U.S. officials (Behrouz Mehri/Getty Images).

The Obama administration believes a new generation of Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges might greatly increase the pace at which the Middle Eastern nation could produce nuclear-weapon material from stockpiled low-enriched uranium, assuming a large-scale installation of the advanced machines takes place over the next several months, U.S. and European government sources said in remarks reported on Thursday by the Wall Street Journal (see GSN, Aug. 2).

A well-executed fielding of the advanced IR-2M and IR-4 centrifuges might double the speed at which Iran could produce sufficient bomb-grade uranium for a weapon from low-enriched material, reducing the wait period to 9-12 months from the 18-24 months required at present, U.S. government insiders said. The potential for Iran's uranium enrichment program to produce nuclear-weapon material has raised concerns in Washington and other capitals, but Tehran has insisted its nuclear ambitions are strictly peaceful.

Iran previously informed U.N. officials it had initiated deployment of IR-2M and IR-4 machines at its Natanz complex, and the country also intends to place a number of the systems at the subterranean Qum facility overseen by the elite Revolutionary Guard, informed envoys said (see GSN, July 15).

The centrifuges that provide the backbone of Iran's present enrichment program are thought capable of refining uranium at no more than one-third the pace of the more sophisticated machines. Some Obama administration insiders, though, doubt Iran can effectively utilize its next-generation machines.

"They like to give the impression that they've made more advances than they have," one high-level U.S. official said. "I think the progress they are making is more rhetorical than real."

Iran in the past has announced plans to deploy sets of the new IR-2M centrifuges at its Natanz site and then failed to do so, International Atomic Energy Agency officials said. Mechanical setbacks and international penalties might have prevented Tehran from taking the step to date, U.N. nuclear watchdog and U.S. government sources said.

Iran has amassed sufficient low-enriched uranium to produce fuel for roughly four nuclear weapons, according to atomic specialists. In addition, Tehran in June announced plans to move its manufacturing of 20 percent-enriched uranium to Qum and to boost generation of the material by threefold; the higher enrichment level could help Tehran more quickly produce nuclear-weapon material, which must be refined to around 90 percent (see GSN, June 8).

"Now the entire program appears geared up to producing 20 percent-enriched uranium," former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen said. "They are going to higher enrichment in a serious way" (Jay Solomon, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 4).

"This is a serious development because it means the United States, Europe, Israel and others will have a shorter response window if Iranian leaders decide to ‘break-out’ and produce weapons-grade uranium," one Republican staffer told the Washington Post. "Since the White House knows reports like this only speed up the Israeli clock -- something the president doesn’t want to deal with before next November — this may force the administration to actually try to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by imposing crippling economic sanctions.”

Both Jerusalem and Washington have said repeatedly that use of military force remains an option in dealing with Iran's nuclear operations.

"Despite the U.S. significantly ratcheting up sanctions, the Iranian nuclear project now appears dangerously close to rocketing forward. If Tehran begins installing advanced centrifuges at [Qum], it represents a major, non-incremental advance by the Iranians -- and thus demands a major, nonincremental response by the U.S. and the allies," another Capitol Hill staffer said (Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post, Aug. 4).

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday said his country lacks any desire to build a nuclear weapon, Reuters reported.

"When we say we don't want to build an atomic bomb it means we really do not want to build an atomic bomb," Ahmadinejad told Euronews TV. "If somebody is looking for an atomic bomb nowadays he's mad."

"Production of 20-percent enrichment production is for totally peaceful use," he added. "It's for a reactor that produces active medicines and produces only medicines. It's just for medical and agricultural use" (Brian Love, Reuters, Aug. 3).

Meanwhile, an analysis of publicly available data by U.S. congressional auditors turned up 16 non-U.S. companies that had done business with Iran's energy industry between January 2010 and May 2011, including two entities not previously identified. The report comes amid continuing efforts by Washington and its partners to penalize Iran over its suspected nuclear-weapon activities; Tehran says its atomic program has no military component.

"According to our review of reliable open sources, foreign firms have significantly decreased commercial activity in Iran's oil, gas, and petrochemical sectors since we last reported," the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a summary of a report published on Wednesday.

"Twenty of the 41 firms listed in our 2010 report declared in their public reporting or in letters to GAO, which were also confirmed by [the State Department], that they have withdrawn or are withdrawing from commercial activity in Iran's energy sector," the document adds. "The companies that withdrew from Iran cited several reasons for ceasing activity, including sanctions imposed by the U.S. government, as well as other international organizations, and the difficulty associated with conducting business with Iran."

While two of the firms maintained $4 million in deals with the U.S. government, last year's GAO analysis "found that the U.S. government obligated almost $880 million in contracts to 7 of the 41 firms having commercial activity in the Iranian energy sectors between 2005 and 2009. However, by May 2011, five of these seven companies had withdrawn from commercial activity in Iran's energy sector," the auditors wrote (U.S. Government Accountability Office release, Aug. 3).

August 4, 2011
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The Obama administration believes a new generation of Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges might greatly increase the pace at which the Middle Eastern nation could produce nuclear-weapon material from stockpiled low-enriched uranium, assuming a large-scale installation of the advanced machines takes place over the next several months, U.S. and European government sources said in remarks reported on Thursday by the Wall Street Journal (see GSN, Aug. 2).

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