By MATTHEW BIGG
Reuters, PARIS - Iran is working at secret military sites to develop a type of centrifuge machine that would enable it to make fuel for an atom bomb faster than current estimates, an exiled opposition group said on April 27.
Iran faces possible sanctions after a U.N. nuclear watchdog report to the U.N. Security Council due on Friday.
The report is expected to judge Tehran for defying a Council demand to stop enriching uranium fuel and address Western suspicions it has a clandestine nuclear bomb project.
The exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has reported accurately on hidden Iranian nuclear sites in the past, said Tehran was researching "P-2" centrifuges in secret areas of its Natanz enrichment plant and the Ab-e Ali site near Tehran.
The NCRI, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist groups, told a Paris news conference that both areas were linked to Iran's defense ministry. Tehran says its nuclear program is only for generating electricity and has no links with the military.
Iran said this month it used older model "P-1" centrifuges at Natanz, which are under U.N. inspection, to enrich enough uranium to fuel nuclear power stations for the first time, a declaration that sparked a diplomatic furor.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad heightened Western concern by saying Iran was researching P-2 centrifuges, which can purify uranium two to three times faster than the P-1 unit.
"They need months and not years to produce these (P-2) centrifuges," Mohammad Mohaddessin, a leading NCRI official, told Reuters in Paris where the group is based.
He said testing P-2s had yet to begin and Tehran was attempting to conceal the work from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by carrying it out on military sites and frequently relocating the work.
NO WAY TO VERIFY CLAIM
The NCRI first disclosed covert uranium-enrichment work in Iran in 2002 and said on April 27 its sources for the new information included contacts at military facilities and in the nuclear industry as well as government officials.
Its latest claims were impossible to verify and the IAEA had no comment.
IAEA inspectors are monitoring Iran's declared operation of P-1 centrifuges at Natanz.
But the Islamic Republic, retaliating for an IAEA referral of its case to the Security Council in February, has halted snap inspections at sites not declared as nuclear to the agency.
It has also refused to answer questions about suspected secret P-2 work other activity Western diplomats say appears to have a military-nuclear dimension, which the IAEA has been unable to rule out after three years of probing.
With P-2 centrifuges in operation, analysts would have to revise downwards estimates that Iran was still three to 10 years away from bomb-making capacity.
The NCRI also said Iran was seeking to build an "implosion-triggered" bomb in which conventional explosives are packed around highly-enriched nuclear fuel. But it provided no further detail.
The implosion system reduces the amount of nuclear material needed by three to four times and it can be carried on a ballistic missile, Mohaddessin said.
The NCRI advocates tough sanctions against Tehran but says it does not favor military action.