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. Iran could make enriched uranium in less than a year: report
WASHINGTON (AFP) Oct 21, 2004
Iran has made significant progress toward producing nuclear fuel and could make significant quantities of enriched uranium in less than a year, The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.

Citing unnamed diplomats, scientists and intelligence officials, the newspaper said that mastering enrichment will move Tehran a big step closer to being able to build an atomic bomb.

Iran has refused to renounce producing enriched uranium, which is the process used to make fuel for civilian reactors but also the explosive core of nuclear weapons.

Iran insists its nuclear program is strictly peaceful, but the United States has alleged that Tehran is secretly trying to develop a nuclear bomb.

Iran has said it wants to produce gaseous uranium, which is used in enrichment. The gas, known as uranium hexafluoride, can be fed into centrifuges that transform the gas into enriched uranium.

The paper quotes diplomats as saying Iran has moved much faster than expected in manufacturing and assembling these centrifuges.

The rapid progress means a pilot centrifuge plant located near Natanz, in central Iran, could soon be equipped with enough machines to begin large-scale enrichment, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Two senior European diplomats said the pilot plant could be expanded from the existing 164 centrifuges to 1,000 within weeks and produce enough material in less than a year to fashion a crude nuclear device, the report said.

"They need to install more centrifuges and do preparatory work, and they could be in production in shorter than a year," the paper quotes one of the diplomats as saying.

Iran is operating another gas-production plant at Esfahan, which is being monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But a production complex with an underground enrichment facility for as many as 50,000 centrifuges is under construction, The Times said.

Western intelligence officials said the big fear is that once the two plants are operating, Iran will shift enrichment operations to hidden installations or follow North Korea's example and kick out the IAEA, allowing Tehran to begin enriching uranium to weapons grade at Natanz, the paper pointed out.

Iran, which last year voluntarily halted enrichment to allay fears about its nuclear program, has said it is capable of undertaking large-scale enrichment within months, while Israeli officials believe the Islamic republic could produce enough uranium for a weapon within six months.

Britain, France and Germany were expected to make an offer to Iran on Thursday to provide it with nuclear technology, including a reactor, to get it to promise to fully stop enrichment to avoid a showdown before the UN Security Council over its nuclear program.

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