VIENNA, Austria – 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 yesterday.
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 connecting the centrifuges that spin uranium to 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 tension between Tehran and the world’s 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.
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 had been going on for weeks in the Natanz facility – set underground below a barren desert mountain that is spiked with antiaircraft batteries and radar to protect it from attack.
Even if Tehran installs 3,000 centrifuges, experts estimate it would still take several years for all of them to run smoothly.