VIENNA, Austria, (AP) -Technical crews have hauled centrifuges into Iran’s vast underground Natanz complex and were on the threshold of launching a program that could be used to create nuclear arms, diplomats said Friday.
Hundreds of technicians have been “working feverishly” in recent weeks in the bunker-like hall beneath the desert near the central Iranian city of Natanz, said a diplomat accredited to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear monitor.
By Thursday, they had installed and tested the pipes, wiring, control panels and air conditioning, setting the stage for hooking up the centrifuges that spin uranium into enriched levels.
Iran says it wants to develop enrichment to generate power, with Natanz as the centerpiece of a program first to link 3,000 centrifuges, and then ultimately to expand to 54,000. The United States and other countries fear Tehran will enrich to a higher level than needed for energy and use the material for the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
The recent activity in Natanz increases the tension between Tehran and the world’s major powers over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, and will likely spur U.S. efforts to sharpen existing U.N. sanctions on Iran for its defiance of a Security Council demand that it freeze enrichment efforts.
“This work is not necessary for a peaceful nuclear energy program, but is needed to give Iran’s leaders the know-how to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons,” said Matt Boland, spokesman for the U.S. delegation to the IAEA.
A diplomat — one of four who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the information was confidential — said that with all the support equipment now installed, “everything is done except putting the machines in and hooking them up.”
The centrifuges would be placed in “cascades” or series, allowing them to spin and re-spin uranium gas to a required level of enrichment — low for energy, high for the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
Another diplomat said that less critical preparatory work has been going on for weeks inside the Natanz facility — set underground below a barren desert mountain that is spiked with anti-aircraft batteries and radar to protect it from attack.
Even if Tehran successfully installs 3,000 centrifuges, experts estimate it would still take several years for all of them to be running smoothly.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, on Wednesday estimated that Iran was two to three years away from having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. The head of U.S. national intelligence, John Negroponte, has spoken of a four-year period.
Once enrichment begins, IAEA inspectors want to check to what level the uranium is being processed, and to ensure that none of the material produced is siphoned off. One of the diplomats familiar with the Iran nuclear dossier said the IAEA was negotiating with Iranian officials on details of what it would be allowed to see and control at the underground bunker.
In a further setback to IAEA monitoring attempts, a U.N. official familiar with Tehran’s nuclear dossier said Thursday that Iranian officials had turned down a request from agency inspectors to install cameras in key areas of the underground facility.
In Tehran on Friday, a top Iranian nuclear official — who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media — disputed that assertion, saying U.N. inspectors had set up cameras in the underground facility. But another U.N. official said Iran had met only some — not all — of the IAEA requests.
Other nations — among them Brazil — also do not allow cameras in their enrichment halls. But unlike Iran, none is under direct scrutiny for possible attempts to make nuclear weapons.