Iran approves building 10 enrichment sites

Last Updated: Sunday, November 29, 2009 - 23:17

Tehran: The Iranian government approved a plan on Sunday to build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities, a dramatic expansion in defiance of UN demands it halt the program.

The decision comes only two days after the UN nuclear watchdog agency censured Iran, demanding it immediately stop building a newly revealed enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom and freeze all uranium enrichment activities. The rebuke angered Iran, raising demands from lawmakers Sunday to cut back cooperation with the UN.

The enrichment announcement is likely to stoke already high tensions between Iran and the West over its controversial nuclear activities. The US and its allies have hinted of new UN sanctions if Tehran remains defiant.

A Cabinet meeting headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to begin building five uranium enrichment sites that have already been studied and propose five other locations for future construction within two months, the state news agency eported.

The Cabinet ordered the new sites to be on the same scale as Iran`s only other industrial-scale enrichment plant currently in operation, near the town of Natanz in central Iran.

About 8,600 centrifuges have been set up in Natanz, but only about 4,000 are actively enriching uranium, according to the UN`s International Atomic Energy Agency. The facility will eventually house 54,000 centrifuges.

In Washington, a senior US officials said that, "if carried out, this would constitute yet another violation of Iran`s continuing obligation of suspension of all enrichment-related activities, including construction of new plants."

"There remains a fleeting opportunity for Iran to engage with the international community, if only it would make that choice," said the official official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the Obama administration had not yet released a formal response.

In Vienna, spokeswoman Gillian Tudor said the UN`s International Atomic Energy Agency would have no comment on Tehran`s announcement.

The newly revealed enrichment site, known as Fordo, is a smaller scale site that will house nearly 3,000 centrifuges. Its discovery earlier this year brought accusations that Iran was developing the site secretly, a claim Tehran denies.

In the enrichment process, uranium gas is spun in centrifuges to purify it. Enriched to a low degree, the result is fuel for a nuclear reactor — but highly enriched uranium can be used to build a warhead. The United States and its allies accuse Iran of secretly seeking to develop a bomb, a claim denied by Iran, which says it seeks only to generate electricity.

Iran aims to generate 20,000 megawatts of electricity through nuclear power plants in the next 20 years. The news agency said the new plants are needed to produce enough fuel for its future reactors.

Ahmadinejad told the Cabinet that Iran will need to install 500,000 centrifuges throughout the planned enrichment facilities to produce between 250 to 300 tons of fuel annually, the agency reported.

The IAEA censure against Iran on Friday was seen as a show of international unity in pressuring Tehran over its nuclear program — though there does not yet appear to be consensus on imposing sanctions.

The IAEA resolution criticized Iran for defying a UN Security Council demand for a suspension of enrichment and for secretly building the Fordo site. It noted that IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei cannot confirm that Tehran`s nuclear program is exclusively geared toward peaceful uses, and expressed "serious concern" that Iran`s stonewalling of an IAEA probe means "the possibility of military dimensions to Iran`s nuclear program" cannot be excluded.

The rebuke infuriated Iran. On Saturday, one hard-line lawmaker warned that parliament might withdraw the country from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and stop all UN inspections — a move that would sharply escalate the standoff with the West and cut off the UN`s only eyes on Iran`s nuclear program.

But parliament took a lesser step on Sunday: 226 of the 290 lawmakers signed a letter urging the government to prepare a plan to reduce Tehran`s cooperation with the IAEA in response to its resolution.

The US and its allies demand Iran accept a UN-brokered offer that would delay its ability to make a nuclear weapon as well as engage in broader talks with the ultimate goal of persuading it to mothball its enrichment program.

Iran has amassed about 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) of low-enriched uranium at Natanz. The UN offer aims to convince Iran to hand over more than 1,200 kilograms (2,600 pounds), more than the commonly accepted amount needed to produce weapons-grade material. But Iran has balked at the UN terms for the plan.

Bureau Report



First Published: Sunday, November 29, 2009 - 23:17

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