Jan. 10, 2006 — -- The International Atomic Energy Agency announced today that Iran had begun removing seals at several nuclear facilities in the area of Natanz under the observation of the IAEA's nuclear safeguards inspectors.
ABC News reported yesterday that Iran intended to begin enriching uranium -- the critical step in making material for nuclear weapons -- a move European diplomats and officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency have tried to prevent over the last three years.
Sources with knowledge of Iran's nuclear program told ABC News that a senior Iranian official notified the IAEA verbally over the weekend of the country's intention to introduce uranium hexafluoride gas, or UF6, into centrifuges at a facility in Natanz, 150 miles south of Tehran.
Introducing UF6 into centrifuges is the necessary step in producing enriched uranium. The centrifuges work by separating the lighter uranium-235 atoms, which can be used to make nuclear weapons and also to fuel nuclear reactors, from heavier uranium-238 atoms.
The enrichment of any uranium by Iran, even in small quantities, amounts to a significant ratcheting up of the tension between Iran and the international community over its nuclear program, and the final abrogation of the November 2004 agreement with the European Union that suspended much of Iran's nuclear activity.
Iran has been warned by the United States, Britain, France and Germany that any enrichment of nuclear fuel will constitute a "red line" it must not cross, and that such action will risk swift referral of the matter to the IAEA's governing board and then the United Nations Security Council.
Longtime Iran observers are taken aback by the boldness of Iran's move.
"When we learned last week that Iran was going to resume some 'research and development' work at Natanz, we assumed there would be some modest initial activity, such as the production of centrifuge components, but this is a much bigger step," said Robert Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Einhorn added that mastering the operation of a 164-centrifuge cascade -- such as the one at Iran's Natanz facility -- was a "significant milestone," giving Iran important experience in overcoming the technical hurdles of uranium enrichment that can be transferred to larger cascades.
Iran has maintained steadfastly its right to enrich uranium domestically, though it has promised to consider seriously a Russian proposal to establish a Russian-Iranian joint venture under which Russia will enrich uranium for Iran's use in nuclear reactors it seeks to build.
The Middle East nation publicly confirmed today it would resume nuclear fuel research, but the decision to actually begin enriching uranium represents a much more significant step.
The IAEA's announcement noted that seals were being removed from the pilot-scale fuel enrichment site at Natanz and two nearby locations, Pars Trash and Farayand Technique. The seals cover centrifuges and related testing and manufacturing components for the P-1 centrifuge. The P-1 is a first-generation centrifuge that Iran developed based on technology and parts it obtained with the help of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who was found to have developed a network supplying Iran, North Korea and Libya with parts for their nuclear programs.
The centrifuges at Natanz are not immediately ready for the UF6 and would require some further assembly before the uranium gas could be introduced.
Experts familiar with Iran's centrifuge efforts believe they can be made ready within days, but it could take many years for Iran to produce a sufficient amount of enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, given its existing centrifuge capabilities.
The amount of time Iran will need to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb depends on several factors, including the enrichment level of the uranium gas used in the cascade and the power of the centrifuges. According to a report published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, it could take Iran more than 10 years to produce 25 kilograms of 93 percent enriched enriched uranium using the 164 centrifuges it has currently at Natanz.
This time could be shortened to as little as two years if Iran used UF6 that was already slightly enriched, according to the institute, or if the power of the centrifuges was increased.