Daily Telegraph: Iranian scientists are expected to start work this week on the highly technical task of enriching tons of uranium to a level where it could be used in the production of atomic weapons, say the latest reports received by western intelligence agencies. Daily Telegraph
By Con Coughlin, Defence and Security Editor
Iranian scientists are expected to start work this week on the highly technical task of enriching tons of uranium to a level where it could be used in the production of atomic weapons, say the latest reports received by western intelligence agencies.
The work is to be undertaken at the top-secret Natanz uranium enrichment facility 90 miles north-east of the capital, Teheran.
The very existence of the plant was concealed from the outside world until two years ago, when an Iranian exile group produced details of its work.
Intelligence sources say Iran will begin feeding converted uranium into 164 centrifuges at Natanz this week. That could enable it to create enriched uranium of sufficient quality for nuclear weapons production within three years.
Previous estimates of the minimum time required had ranged from five to 10 years.
Iran’s unilateral decision to resume enrichment is by far the most critical development in its latest stand-off with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations-sponsored body responsible for enforcing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
As a signatory to the NPT, Iran is obliged to provide the IAEA with a comprehensive breakdown of all its nuclear activity, which Teheran insists is purely for the development of an indigenous nuclear power industry – despite Iran having one of the world’s largest known oil reserves.
But the discrepancies that have appeared in declarations to IAEA inspectors – which included concealing the existence of the Natanz complex – have increased suspicions that Iran is well advanced in its clandestine programme to build a nuclear weapon.
Nuclear experts working for the intelligence agencies have concluded that it now has the resources necessary for developing a nuclear weapon.
“Iran has spent the past 20 years scouring the world to acquire all the means of production and materials necessary for building nuclear weapons,” a senior western intelligence officer told The Daily Telegraph.
“The big intelligence debate now is not whether Iran can build a bomb, but how long it will take them to build it.”
Despite concerted attempts by western intelligence to prevent them acquiring nuclear equipment, the Iranians have managed to import key components.
Latest reports suggest that Iran has at least 1,000 tons of uranium -“yellowcake”, the oxide of uranium that can be enriched to create weapons-grade uranium.
It was acquired from Niger and South Africa in the late 1990s. When processed, that quantity of yellowcake could provide enough material for five nuclear bombs.
The Iranians have also obtained key components for processing the yellowcake and technical expertise from A Q Khan, the controversial scientist regarded as being the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb.
By far the most alarming acquisition from Pakistan, according to western intelligence assessments, is the P2 centrifuge, the highly sophisticated device necessary for enriching uranium to weapons grade.
In order to reach the advanced stage needed for building an atomic weapon, it is necessary to connect a number of centrifuges so that they form a “cascade”.
When they were finally allowed to visit Natanz two years ago, IAEA inspectors were alarmed to discover that the Iranians had managed to construct a cascade. This comprises 164 centrifuges, which are based on Pakistan’s P2 design.
Any doubts about the effectiveness of the devices were banished when soil samples taken from the site by IAEA inspectors showed traces of weapons-grade uranium.
If the nuclear programme were genuinely aimed at developing nuclear power, there would be no need to process weapons-grade uranium.
Asked to explain the soil samples, the Iranians provided the rather lame excuse that the traces had inadvertently been imported from an unidentified foreign power – believed to be Pakistan – when the centrifuges were purchased.
This is only one of the many glaring inconsistencies that have appeared in the Iranians’ submissions to the IAEA, which has been powerless to prevent their relentless pursuit of nuclear technology.
As a consequence Iran now has all the means of production and materials to proceed to the final weapons stage.
That process will begin this week when scientists resume work on processing uranium to weapons grade at Natanz.
Much of the preparatory work has already been done at the Isfahan nuclear conversion plant.
Work resumed there last year when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the removal of IAEA seals, unilaterally breaking the Paris Accord of November 2004.
This was negotiated with the European Union as Iran promised to suspend its nuclear activities until IAEA inspectors had satisfied themselves that Teheran’s nuclear intentions were purely peaceful.
Isfahan has the capacity to process 300 tons of yellowcake a year, and before work was suspended in 2004 it was known that 37 tons had been developed to make uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas. UF6 is a key component in achieving weapons grade.
Once the UF6 is produced, it is transferred to Natanz where it is fed into the centrifuges to enrich uranium to weapons grade.
Exactly how much UF6 has been produced since the Isfahan seals were removed last August is unknown, although conservative intelligence estimates suggest there are sufficient stocks of UF6 for 30 kilos of enriched uranium. The warhead used at Hiroshima contained 25 kilos.
The only question remaining for western intelligence is to assess exactly how long it will take the Iranians to complete the process.
“We just don’t know how efficient the Natanz plant is at enriching uranium,” said an intelligence official.
“This is a very complex and highly sophisticated process that requires a great deal of technical ability.”
IAEA officials have estimated that it will take Iran three years to produce weapons-grade uranium once the Natanz plant resumes work.
Given that its Shahab-3 ballistic missile system has the range to hit southern Europe, it is clear that the threat posed by Teheran’s hard-line regime is significant and urgent.