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. Iran's main nuclear sites
TEHRAN (AFP) May 12, 2005
Iran was locked on Thursday in last-ditch talks with the European Union to find a deal over its nuclear programme, which has aroused widespread international concern focussed on several controversial atomic sites.

Following are the facilities considered to be the main sites dedicated to Islamic republic's nuclear drive. These and other related sites have been declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and are currently subject to constant supervision.


POWER PLANT:

The construction of Iran's atomic power plant near the southern coastal city of Bushehr is nearing completion.

The project was first launched by the former shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in the 1970's. The German firm Kraftwerk-Union, a joint venture of Siemens and AEG-Telefunken, was commissioned to build the facility, but pulled out in the midst of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. The plant was frequently targetted by Iraqi jets during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

In the early 1990's Iran began to search for help to revive the project, and in 1995 found help from Russia -- desperately in need of cash to keep its own nuclear power industry afloat. The contract will earn Russia an estimated 800 million dollars.

Iran has consistently argued that it need nuclear power to meet increased energy demands from a booming population and to free up its vast oil and gas resources for export and therefore badly-needed hard currency.

The Bushehr plant may symbolise Iran's atomic ambitions, but the plant itself is seen as relatively harmless in terms of the clerical regime acquiring a nuclear bomb.

Russia has also agreed to fuel the plant and bring it on line in 2006, but the fuel supply deal commits Iran to returning any spent material.

What is of greater concern is the country's bid to fuel its own reactors -- the country plans to build up to 20 more -- by mastering the entire nuclear fuel cycle, including mining, conversion, enrichment and reprocessing.

Once mastered, the fuel cycle would give Iran a tempting "option" to quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and make a bomb.


MINING:

In Saghand, near the central desert oasis city of Yazd, Iran has discovered and is mining huge deposits of uranium ore -- meaning the Islamic republic can be self-sufficient from the very start of the nuclear fuel cycle.


CONVERTING:

Raw mined uranium, or "yellowcake", is then transferred to a Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) on the edge of the central city of Isfahan, the ancient capital of Persia. The mined uranium is transformed into uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) and then into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a feed gas for the actual process of enrichment.


ENRICHMENT:

Iran has build a massive underground complex near the central town of Natanz. The facility is designed to host cascades of thousands of centrifuges. UF6 gas is fed into the centrifuges, which spin at supersonic speeds to enrich the uranium.

Iran says it only wishes to enrich to low level purity required for reactor fuel. However, the process could potentially be diverted to produce weapons grade uranium.

Natanz is particularly controversial: Iran only declared the facility to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, after the site was exposed in 2002 by an exiled opposition group.

Iran has also admitted to buying key centrifuge components through a black market ring run by the disgraced father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Officials recently allowed foreign journalists to visit the site in a gesture of transparency. It is ringed by scores of anti-aircraft guns.


HEAVY WATER REACTOR:

Iran has begun building a heavy water research reactor in Arak, a site around 250 kilometers south of Tehran that was also exposed by the exiled opposition.

The IAEA is concerned about the proliferation risk as the reactor could produce 8-10 kilograms of plutonium per year, enough to make at least one nuclear bomb.

The Europeans say they cannot understand why Iran would want a plutonium-producing heavy water reactor when its whole enrichment programme is based on uranium, but Iran has rejected an offer from the European Union to help it get a light-water research reactor in exchange for giving up its heavy-water project.

The construction of the reactor could be completed by 2009.

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