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Baku Releases Iran-Bound Nuke Equipment.

Azerbaijan on May 1 released a Russian shipment of nuclear equipment bound for Iran, which had been blocked at its border for three weeks. The shipment was destined for a Russian-built nuclear reactor in the southern Iranian port city of Bushehr.

At first Baku said it was seeking more information about the shipment due to fears it might violate UNSC sanctions imposed on Iran over its failure to halt uranium enrichment.

The shipment contained heat-isolating equipment essential to the plant's operation. (Iran is paying Russia over $1 bn to build the light-water reactor at Bushehr. Construction has been held up by disputes between Tehran and Moscow over payments and a schedule for shipping nuclear fuel. Russia delivered the final shipment of uranium fuel in January).

Iran's complex of nuclear plants at Natanz, ringed by barbed wire and anti-aircraft guns deep in the desert, now is the subject of an international focus and lies at the heart of the West's five-year stand-off with Tehran over its uranium enrichment. Iran continues to refuse to stop uranium enrichment, a demand made repeatedly by the UNSC.

(Tehran insists its nuclear plans are peaceful. But Washington and its allies see a looming threat).

Natanz made headlines recently because Iran was testing a new generation of centrifuges there which spin faster and, in theory, can more rapidly turn natural uranium into fuel for reactors or nuclear weapons. The new machines are meant to be more reliable than their fore-runners, which often failed catastrophically.

On April 8, President Ahmadi-Nejad visited Natanz, and Iran released 48 photographs of the tour, providing the first significant look inside the complex. Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control specialist at the New America Foundation in Washington, says of the photos: "They're remarkable. We're learning things".

The pictures give the first public glimpse of the new centrifuge, known as the IR-2. There were no captions with the photos, so analysts around the globe are scrutinising the visual evidence to size up the new machine, its efficiency and its readiness for the tough job of uranium enrichment.

Analysts see the photos as an intelligence boon. Andreas Persbo, an analyst in London at the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre, a private promoter of arms control, says: "This is intel to die for". His comment came on the blog site "Arms Control Wonk".

One surprise of the tour was the presence of Iranian Defence Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar. His attendance struck some analysts as odd, given Iran's claim that the work in the desert was entirely peaceful in nature. In one picture, Najar, smiling widely, appears to lead the presidential retinue. Nuclear analysts say the tour in general opened a window into a hidden world previously known only to the Iranians and a few international inspectors.

Houston Wood 3rd, a centrifuge expert at the University of Virginia, says: "I don't see anything to suggest this is propaganda. They seem to be working on an advanced machine". Such judgments rest not only on the photographic clues but also on the Iranian record of successful, if limited, enrichment and the reports of international inspectors, who have tracked Iran's bid to develop the new centrifuges.

Engineers use centrifuges for many applications, not just for enriching uranium. In general, the devices spin fast to separate all kinds of objects of differing mass and density - for instance, milk from cream or impurities from wine. To that end, centrifuges exploit simple laws of physics, doing so in ways which echo common experience.

A car which veers around a corner throws its passengers to one side. So, too, a centrifuge throws its contents off what would normally be a forward course. But it does so relentlessly.

As Newton explained in his second law of motion, the more massive the object, the greater the tug. In the lurching car, an adult feels the force more than a child. In the centrifuge, heavy objects feel it more than light ones and, if possible, they move more vigorously towards the outer wall. Nuclear centrifuges apply the same principle to uranium mined from the earth's inner recesses, spinning it into constituent parts.

Iran is separating U-235 from U-238. U-235 easily splits in two to produce bursts of atomic energy. It has three fewer neutrons, making it slightly lighter and better centrifuge separation.

Engineers turn uranium's natural mix into a gas. Then, the centrifuge throws the heavier U-238 atoms towards the wall, letting the rare U-235 ones accumulate near the centre. The results get scooped up continually. Rows of centrifuges repeat the process to slowly raise the rare isotope's concentration.

The centrifuges spin at about the speed of sound, must work day and night for months or years on end and can easily lose their balance, tearing themselves apart. In a 2006 interview on state TV, Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation President Gholamreza Aghazadeh said: "Our machines broke down frequently" in the programme's early days.

Aghazadeh said a study had traced the failures to centrifuge assembly when technicians with bare hands inadvertently left behind clusters of microbes. He added: "This little amount of germs" was enough to throw the whirling devices off balance, leaving them in ruins. When we say a machine is destroyed, we mean it turns into powder".

In great secrecy, Iran began its centrifuge programme in 1985. It copied a Pakistani design, the P-1, which nuclear expert Abdul Qadeer Khan sold on the global black market. The Iranian version stands more than two metres high. Inside, a hollow rotor of aluminum spins the uranium gas to blinding speeds.

Iran has installed 3,000 of the temperamental machines at Natanz, and has begun to expand that to 9,000.

In recent years, Iran has tried to move ahead in sophistication with a newer centrifuge design based on Pakistan's second-generation model, the P-2. Its rotor is made of super-hard steel which can spin faster, speeding the pace of enrichment while lowering the risk of breakdown. But Iran had great difficulty building the machines and obtaining the special steel. Instead it developed its own version, the IR-2. It is partly indigenous, signalling Iran has achieved new levels of technical skill.

Iran is gaining the industrial experience needed to make reactor fuel or, with the same equipment and a little more effort, bomb fuel - the hardest part of the weapon equation. Uranium enriched to about 4% uranium 235 can fuel most reactors; to 90%, atom bombs.

Experts say in one year 3,000 flawlessly running P-1 centrifuges could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon. Or the same could be achieved with 1,200 IR-2 machines.

US experts say the earliest Iran can make a nuclear weapon is 2009, but consider 2010 to 2015 to be a more likely timeframe.

Iran insists it wants to make only reactor fuel for producing electricity. But Western experts wonder that, given the high stakes and the international jitters, why did Iran release the photos?
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:May 5, 2008
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