Agence France Presse – Iran could be running a 164-centrifuge pilot cascade to enrich uranium by the end of March or beginning of April, diplomats close to the UN nuclear watchdog told AFP.
This comes as the United Nations Security Council is stalled over issuing a statement that would call on Iran to suspend enrichment, which Tehran says is to produce nuclear reactor fuel but can make atom bomb material.
At the pilot cascade in the Iranian city of Natanz, "there is just piping to be finished, then they do vacuum tests, then they would test with inert gas and finally they would put in uranium gas to begin the process," said a diplomat close to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The diplomat, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the cascade might be ready to begin enrichment as quickly as "within a week, maybe a week or two longer."
While the cascade at Natanz is too small to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU), the reported progress "has really raised the anxiety level" about Tehran’s nuclear program, a Western diplomat said.
"Iran is closer to mastering centrifuge cascade operations than we expected," the diplomat said.
Nuclear expert David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington said Iran could make low-enriched uranium which it could enrich further to bomb grade "a lot quicker."
The Western diplomat said Iran’s progress in enrichment "means diplomacy has less time to succeed. Much less time. And yet the Russians are dithering."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday telephoned Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a new attempt to break a deadlock at the Security Council.
Rice told a news conference in Washington that she and Lavrov, whose country has resisted tough action against Iran, agreed to step up work on a statement aimed at forcing Tehran to renounce any ambitions to develop atomic bombs.
Rice’s earlier warned "there can’t be any stalling" in dealing with the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Iran in mid-February dropped a self-imposed moratorium on enrichment — meant to show it did not seek nuclear weapons — by putting uranium hexafluoride gas into single centrifuges in Natanz, followed by 10-centrifuge and a 20-centrifuge cascade.
The next step would be the 164-centrifuge cascade, a research-level operation to learn about techniques used in running thousands of centrifuges.
Iran, which strongly denies it wants nuclear weapons but insists on its right to enrich uranium for fuel, needs more than 50,000 centrifuges to produce enough for up to a dozen atom bombs a year.