TEHRAN, (Reuters) – Iran has started enriching uranium in a second network of centrifuges, Iran’s student news agency ISNA reported on Friday, expanding a programme which the West fears is intended to make nuclear bombs.
ISNA quoted an “informed source” as saying “the injection of gas was carried out” in the past week. “We have obtained the product of the second cascade,” the source said.
Uranium UF-6 gas is injected into cylindrical centrifuges which spin at supersonic speeds to produce enriched material. The process can make fuel for power plants or material for atomic bombs.
Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, says the aim of its nuclear programme is to meet energy needs. But it has failed to convince world powers, who are threatening U.N. sanctions after Tehran failed to heed a U.N. demand to halt enrichment work.
“This is increasing the worries of the international community about the growth of Iran’s capacity to produce fissile material,” French Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei told reporters in Paris in response to the news.
“The priority is to move towards the negotiation of a Security Council resolution,” he added.
A British Foreign Office spokesman said it was a matter for the IAEA, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog body, to investigate.
Another British government source said: “The fact that they’ve now started to feed stuff through the centrifuge isn’t going to shock anyone. But it will demonstrate further Iranian intransigence and that will all be taken in the round.”
Diplomats said this week Iran had started “dry testing” a network of 164 centrifuges, known as cascades, to go with an original network that yielded Iran’s first batch of enriched uranium suitable for power plant fuel.
The first cascade of centrifuges produced a tiny amount of low-enriched uranium in April.
Western intelligence experts estimate Iran remains three to 10 years away from an industrial-scale operation of thousands of centrifuges that could yield enough fuel for nuclear bombs.
Iran now faces possible sanctions for failing to halt its enrichment work, as demanded by the U.N. Security Council. A draft sanctions resolution has been drawn up by European states, but Russia has expressed misgivings about the proposal.
Iran has shrugged off the threat of sanctions. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, has threatened retaliation, possibly by halting U.N. inspections of Iranian facilities.
“By imposing sanctions, you yourselves will be hurt more than Iran. Give up these games,” an influential Iranian cleric, Ahmad Khatami, told worshippers during Friday prayers.
Russia, the United States, Britain, France and China — the five permanent council members — plus Germany held their first meeting on Thursday on the draft resolution, which would ban Iranian trade in nuclear materials and ballistic missiles.
French President Jacques Chirac said in Beijing on Friday he supported temporary, reversible and specially adapted sanctions against Iran if talks over its nuclear programme failed.
Speaking in Russia, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the draft did not match previous agreements among the major powers seeking to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and predicted long negotiations before the issue is resolved.
The United States had wanted to suspend Russia’s construction of a nuclear power plant at Bushehr, which will be Iran’s first atomic power station.
No agreement on the resolution is expected until sometime next week at the earliest after which the text goes to the full 15-member Security Council.