April 16, 2006

Iran expanding, reinforcing atomic sites: experts

By Mark Heinrich

VIENNA (Reuters) - New satellite imagery indicate Iran has
expanded its uranium conversion site at Isfahan and reinforced
its Natanz underground uranium enrichment plant against
possible military strikes, a U.S. think tank said.

Iran last week announced it had enriched uranium for use in
fuelling power stations for the first time, stoking a
diplomatic crisis over Western suspicions of a covert Iranian
atomic bomb project. Iran says it seeks only nuclear energy for
its economy.

The U.N. Security Council, which could consider sanctions
on Iran, has called on Tehran to halt enrichment activity and
asked U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei to report
on the Iranian response on April 28. But Iran has accelerated
nuclear work and stood its ground during a visit by ElBaradei
last week.

The Institute for Science and International Security said
in an email sent to news media with attached commercial
satellite photos that Iran has built a new tunnel entrance at
Isfahan, where uranium is processed into a feed material for

There had been just two entry points in February, it said.

"This new entrance is indicative of a new underground
facility or further expansion of the existing one," said ISIS,
led by ex-U.N. arms inspector and nuclear expert David

ISIS also featured four satellite images taken between 2002
and January 2006 that it said showed Natanz's two subterranean
cascade halls being buried by successive layers of earth,
apparent concrete slabs and more earth and other materials.

The roofs of the halls now appear to be eight metres (26
feet) underground, ISIS said.

An investigative report in New Yorker magazine this month
said the United States was mulling the option of knocking out
subterranean Iranian nuclear sites with tactical atomic bombs.

President George W. Bush dismissed the story as "wild
speculation" and said he remained focused on diplomacy to
defuse the confrontation with Tehran. But U.S. media accounts
of air strike planning by the Bush administration have


"Iran is taking extraordinary precautions to try to protect
its nuclear assets. But the growing talk of eliminating Iran's
nuclear programme from the air is pretty glib," Albright told
Reuters by telephone from Washington.

"Centrifuges are rather small machines and could be built
again quickly, and Iran could store UF6 in a garage somewhere
that would be pretty impossible to find," he said.

"It will be very difficult to erase the knowledge they have
achieved," said Mark Fitzpatrick, nuclear affairs expert at the
International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The Isfahan site had stockpiled 110 tonnes of feedstock UF6
gas, Tehran said last week, 25 more tonnes than it had reported
to ElBaradei's International Atomic Energy Agency in February.

The larger amount could yield a dozen atom bombs once Iran
mastered the technology of enrichment in cascades of thousands
of centrifuge machines whirling at supersonic speed, a
threshold it will probably need 3-10 years to attain, analysts

Tehran proclaimed with fanfare that it had managed to
enrich the concentration of uranium's fissile U-235 isotope to
3.5 percent, sufficient to run nuclear power plants, in a pilot
cascade of 164 centrifuges.

"Even if this is exaggerated, they are close to (enrichment
ability) and the world faces a new reality," Fitzpatrick said.

Enrichment must reach at least 80 percent to set off the
chain reaction for a nuclear bomb. It would take 164
centrifuges over a decade to purify uranium enough for one

But Tehran aims to begin installing 3,000 centrifuges later
this year, which could produce enough highly enriched uranium
for one warhead in a year, nuclear scientists estimate.

Albright said Iran was believed to currently have enough
components to set up at least 1,000-2,000 more centrifuges.

Analysts say Iran would need to run thousands of
centrifuges for many months to years without breakdown, often
caused by excessive vibration or pressure and temperature
fluctuations, to prove it could make significant quantities of
enriched uranium.