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Iran about to double enriched uranium: UN

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SALZBURG, Austria -- Iran is poised to double its output of higher-enriched uranium at its fortified underground facility, the UN nuclear agency said Friday.

The development puts Tehran within months of being able to make the core of a nuclear warhead.

The finding also calls into question a tentative new U.S. plan meant to induce Tehran to compromise on its nuclear program by offering a rollback of sanctions if Tehran cuts back on enriching uranium to 20 per cent.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran was ready within days to ramp up its production of 20 per cent enriched uranium at its plant at Fordo using 700 more centrifuges.

That would double Iran's present output and cut in half the time it would take to acquire enough of the substance to make a nuclear weapon, reducing it to about three months.

Iranian officials say the country has no interest in making nuclear arms. The government has refused to give up enrichment despite international sanctions and offers of reactor fuel from abroad.

The report urged Iran to stop stalling the IAEA probe, declaring unless it starts to co-operate, the IAEA cannot "exclude the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program."

The report also clashed with comments by Israeli officials suggesting Iran has slowed the timetable for reaching the ability to make nuclear weapons.

The discrepancy is important because earlier Israeli comments implied Israel would have more time before deciding whether to hit Iranian facilities in an attempt to slow Tehran's perceived efforts to make nuclear weapons.

The IAEA report, which was circulated among the IAEA's 35 board member states, was obtained by The Associated Press.

It said between the last IAEA board report in August and now, Iran had put nearly 700 centrifuges that were installed but not ready to operate at Fordo under a vacuum to make sure they are airtight. That is the last step before uranium gas is fed into the centrifuges and the process or enrichment begins -- an activity that can produce both reactor fuel or, at high levels, the fissile interior of a nuclear weapon. It takes only a few days to start enrichment with machines that are under vacuum.

The centrifuges, "having been subjected to vacuum testing, were ready for feeding" with uranium gas, the report said.

About 700 other centrifuges have been producing 20 per cent uranium at Fordo since early this year. Another 1,400 or so have been installed but are not yet believed operational, bringing the total to about 2,800.

While experts agree the Islamic Republic could assemble enough weapons-grade uranium to arm a nuclear weapon relatively quickly, they point out this is only one in a series of steps need to create a working weapon. They say Tehran is believed to be years away from mastering the technology to manufacture a fully operational warhead.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 A24

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