VIENNA - The UN nuclear agency yesterday confirmed that Iran has begun enriching uranium at an underground bunker to a level that can be upgraded more quickly for use in a nuclear weapon than the nation’s main enriched stockpile.
Comment from the International Atomic Energy Agency came after diplomats said that centrifuges at the Fordo site near Iran’s holy city of Qom are churning out uranium enriched to 20 percent. That level is higher than the 3.5 percent being made at Iran’s main enrichment plant and can be turned into fissile warhead material faster and with less work.
Iran began to further enrich a small part of its uranium stockpile to nearly 20 percent in February 2010 at a less-protected experimental site, saying the nation needs the higher grade material to produce fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical radioisotopes for cancer patients.
But with the time and effort to make weapons-grade uranium thus reduced, the start of the Fordo operation increases international fears that Iran is determined to move closer to the ability to make nuclear warheads - despite insistence by the Islamic Republic that it is enriching only to make reactor fuel.
Fordo’s location increases concerns.
The facility is a hardened tunnel and is protected by air defense missile batteries and the Revolutionary Guard. The site is about 20 miles north of Qom, the religious nerve center of Iran’s ruling system. The semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted Iran’s nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, as saying Sunday that “the enemy doesn’t have the ability to damage it.’’
Built next to a military complex, Fordo was long kept secret and was acknowledged by Iran only after it was identified by Western intelligence agencies in September 2009.
Iran’s dismissal of findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency of secret experimental work on a nuclear weapons program worries the international community.
Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, called the latest move “a provocative act which further undermines Iran’s claims that its program is entirely civilian in nature.’’
Tehran’s “claim to be enriching for the Tehran Research Reactor does not stand up to serious scrutiny,’’ he said. Hague said that Iran “already has sufficient enriched uranium to power the reactor for more than five years and has not even installed the equipment necessary to manufacture fuel elements’’ out of the enriched material.
Tehran has been angered by the West’s efforts to sanction Iran over its nuclear program, including a possible ban on European imports of Iranian oil. It recently threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, an important transit route for almost one-fifth of the oil traded globally.
Hague said Fordo’s size - it is too small for an industrial enrichment complex of the type Iran says it needs to make fuel - as well as its “location and clandestine nature raise serious questions about its ultimate purpose.’’
Two diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity because their information was confidential said 348 machines were operating at Fordo in two cascades - the linked-up configuration needed to enrich. Two other cascades were nearly assembled but not working, they said.
The centrifuges appeared to be the standard old-generation machines in use at the main enrichment site at Natanz and not advanced, more efficient prototype versions. That, too, was confirmed by the atomic energy agency, which said it was monitoring operations at the plant.
About 8,000 centrifuges are operating at Natanz, where five years of enrichment have turned out enough material for several nuclear warheads.
The Fordo startup was first reported Sunday by the daily Kaynan, a hard-line newspaper close to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all important matters of state. Abbasi was more circumspect, saying Saturday that his country will soon begin enrichment at Fordo.
It was impossible to reconcile the two reports. But the diplomats speculated that they could be a further reflection of divisions within Iran’s ruling circles about how upfront the nation should be with nuclear activities that are drawing increasingly severe international penalties beyond four sets of UN Security Council sanctions.
Iran - which says it seeks nuclear reactors only for energy and research - has sharply increased its threats and military posturing against stronger pressures, including US sanctions targeting Iran’s Central Bank in attempts to complicate its ability to sell oil.