Iran Nuclear NewsIran says it now runs more than 6,000 centrifuges

Iran says it now runs more than 6,000 centrifuges

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ImageAP: Iran's nuclear chief says the country has increased the number of centrifuges enriching uranium to 6,000, the latest show of defiance to U.N. demands it halt the enrichment program.

The Associated Press

By NASSER KARIMI

ImageBUSHEHR, Iran (AP) — Iran's nuclear chief says the country has increased the number of centrifuges enriching uranium to 6,000, the latest show of defiance to U.N. demands it halt the enrichment program.

In November, Iran said it had 5,000 centrifuges running at its enrichment plant in the central city of Natanz.

The nuclear chief, Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, says Iran will continue to install more centrifuges and enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel for future Iranian power plants.

Uranium enriched to a low level is used as fuel in a reactor. Further enrichment makes it suitable for nuclear weapons.

The United States and its allies accuse Iran of pursuing nuclear arms. Tehran denies this, saying its program is aimed only at generating electricity.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BUSHEHR, Iran (AP) — Iranian and Russian officials began a test-run of Iran's first nuclear plant on Wednesday, a major step toward launching full operations at the facility, which has long raised concerns in the U.S. and its allies over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The pilot operations at the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor, built with Russian assistance under a $1 billion contract, have long been delayed over construction and supply glitches.

It's unclear when the reactor could be switched on. Test runs normally occur a few months before a reactor's startup.

The plant, which will run on enriched uranium imported from Russia, has worried the West because the spent fuel could later be turned into plutonium, potential material for nuclear warheads.

U.S. concerns over the reactor softened somewhat after Iran agreed to return spent fuel to Russia to ensure Tehran does not reprocess it into plutonium. Russia's fuel deliveries to Iran began in 2007.

Iran has its own domestic program for enriching uranium that it says will be used in future reactors. The U.N. is demanding Iran suspend this program because of fears it could enrich uranium to a higher degree and produce a nuclear warhead. Iran has denied it is pursuing nuclear weapons, maintaining its program is only for peaceful purposes.

Wednesday's tests at the reactor, located in the southern port city of Bushehr, were a computer run to ensure the reactor's processes work properly. For the tests, technicians loaded a "virtual fuel" of lead into the reactor to imitate the density of enriched uranium, said Iranian nuclear spokesman Mohsen Shirazi.

The aim is to run the equipment and ensure there are no malfunctions when actual enriched uranium fuel is put in. No electricity is produced during the testing.

"This (test) is one of the major elements of an extensive project," he said. Once the virtual fuel is in place, "we will check to see how the reactor will operate," said Russian nuclear agency chief Sergei Kiriyenko, who was inspecting the process.

Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, who heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said the test was going well and engineers told him they expected no problems in the test run.

"Today was one of the most important days for the Iranian nation," Aghazadeh told reporters. "We are approaching full exploitation of this plant."

Kiriyenko said Bushehr witnessed "remarkable progress in recent months" but that work remains to be done to "speed up the launching of the site." The Russian-Iranian team was "approaching the final stage" before the plant becomes operational, he said.

In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, "Iranians are showing again that they are making progress in their nuclear race."

"This should be understood as very bad news for the whole of the international community," Palmor said, calling for "immediate and very determined steps in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power."

The Bushehr reactor was initially to start in 2008, and some 700 Iranian engineers were trained in Russia over four years to operate the plant.

The Bushehr project dates backs to 1974, when Iran's U.S.-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi signed an agreement to build the reactor with the German company Siemens. The company withdrew from the project after the 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the shah. In 1992, Iran signed an agreement with Russia to complete the project and work began on it in 1995.

Russia says there is no evidence that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and has joined China in weakening Western-backed sanctions in the U.N. Security Council, arguing that punishing Tehran too harshly for its nuclear activities would be counterproductive.

The U.N. Security Council has passed three sets of sanctions against Iran over uranium enrichment and is considering further measures.

Tehran also plans to build a 360-megawatt nuclear power plant in Darkhovin, in the southwestern Khuzestan province that would use locally produced enriched uranium.

Associated Press Writer Matti Friedman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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