TEHRAN, Iran — Iran will soon install more advanced centrifuges at its new uranium enrichment site, the country's nuclear chief said Wednesday, underscoring Tehran's continued defiance in the face of international sanctions imposed over its controversial nuclear program.
The uranium enrichment lies at the heart of Iran's dispute with the West, which is concerned that the activity masks efforts to make nuclear weapons — a charge Tehran denies, insisting the work is peaceful and only meant to generate electricity.
Vice President Fereidoun Abbasi, who also heads Iran's nuclear agency, said on Wednesday that Tehran would set up the more efficient centrifuges, suitable for higher-grade uranium enrichment, at the Fordo site near the holy city of Qom in central Iran.
Built next to a military complex to protect it in case of an attack, Fordo was long kept secret and was only acknowledged by Iran after it was identified by Western intelligence agencies in September 2009.
At the time, the labs were still under construction inside former ammunition depots carved into a mountainside. The area is heavily protected by the powerful Revolutionary Guard.
Despite four rounds of U.N. sanctions over its refusal to halt the enrichment, Iran has threatened to expand the program tenfold and produce new centrifuges capable of enriching uranium faster than the old ones.
This has added to the international concerns because these centrifuges would allow Tehran to accelerate the pace of its program and potentially enable Iran to amass more nuclear material in a shorter time that could be turned into the fissile core of missiles, should it choose to do so.
Centrifuges are machines that are used to enrich uranium. Low-enriched uranium — at around 3.5 percent — can be used to fuel a reactor to generate electricity, which Iran says is the intention of its program. But if uranium is further enriched to around 90 percent purity, it can be used to develop a nuclear warhead.
Iran has been producing uranium enriched up to 5 percent for years and began the higher enrichment — up to near 20 percent, considered a threshold between low and high enriched uranium — in February 2010, claiming it needs the higher enriched uranium to produce fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical radioisotopes needed for cancer patients.
According to Abbasi, the nuclear chief, the new centrifuges at Fordo would be more advanced than the decades old P-1 type once acquired on the black market and in use at Iran's main enrichment facility in Natanz.
"Soon, we will install 164-machine centrifuge cascades of the new generation (at Fordo)," Abbasi was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying after a Cabinet meeting.
He also added that Iran would triple the output of its higher enrichment program this year and would move the entire program to Fordo from Natanz. The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, would monitor the transfer, he said.
When Iran first announced it activated the 164-machine centrifuge cascades for higher enrichment last year, IAEA said the move was contrary to U.N. resolutions demanding Iran suspend all enrichment.
Abbasi's announcement came a day after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized the IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, claiming the director has discredited the world body by alleging that Iran may be working on a nuclear weapons program.
Ahmadinejad was reacting to Amano's earlier comments alleging that some aspects of Iran's nuclear activities could be linked to a weapons program, according to latest information obtained by the U.N. watchdog.
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