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Enrichment begins in new factory at Fordo.

The Islamic Republic moved its centrifuges enriching uranium to 20 percent to a site inside a mountain this week, garnering worldwide attention and charges that it was engaging in a major escalation.

The change was actually a very minor one. It also signaled a failure rather than an advance in technology.

Much of the news coverage in the West was confused and garbled, with some news reports saying that Iran was "starting" uranium enrichment for the first time.

Actually, all Iran did was move a few hundred centrifuges that have been enriching to 20 percent at the Natanz centrifuge facility to a new site at Fordo, north of Qom, inside a mountain on a Pasdar military base.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which confirmed the move Monday, will still have regular access to the centrifuges and be able to inspect Iran's operations as before.

There are 348 centrifuges at Fordo versus about 8,000 at Natanz.

But IAEA officials said all the centrifuges at Fordo are still the old and outdated P-1 version. Iran has been saying it would open Fordo with new and more advanced centrifuges. The fact that it has not done so indicates a setback for its technology.

There are no additional centrifuges enriching, no more modern centrifuges enriching and no centrifuges enriching to a higher level than before. All that happened is that 348 centrifuges were moved from Natanz to Fordo.

But Western powers launched a unified criticism of the move, harping on the word "escalation" or "provocation."


State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "If they are enriching at Fordo to 20 percent, this . is a further escalation of their ongoing violations with regard to their nuclear obligations." This was a reference to the UN Security Council resolution of July 2006 ordering Iran to halt all enrichment.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said "The start of uranium enrichment to 20 percent in the Fordo underground nuclear site is a step of further escalation."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, "This is a provocative act which further undermines Iran's claims that its program is entirely civilian in nature."

In Tehran, Fereydun Abbasi, chief of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, emphasize that the shift to Fordo was done to provide better defense for the centrifuges. "The enemy doesn't have the ability to damage it," he said, meaning that no weapons can penetrate that deeply into the mountainside at Fordo to destroy the site. But military planners say the entrance to the site can be struck and access to the site inside the mountain blocked.

At Natanz, officials said the centrifuges will continue to enrich to 3.5 percent, producing fuel for Iran's power generating reactors. But Iran has only one power reactor under construction. That is the one at Bushehr. And the Russians are providing all the fuel for that reactor.

Iran is many years away from having any other power reactors so there is nothing to do with the 3.5 percent fuel produced at Natanz--except send it to Fordo to be further enriched to 20 percent. Iran says it is using that 20 percent fuel to produce fuel plates for its small Tehran research reactor. It already has enough 20 percent enriched uranium to fuel that reactor a few years.

The concern in the West is that Iran will enrich the 20 percent uranium further to the 90 percent needed for weaponry.

While the advance from 3.5 percent enrichment to 20 percent enrichment appears to leave Iran far from 90 percent, its is actually easier and quicker to enrich more the further one is along. The toughest stage is to enrich to 3.5 percent. It is easier to go up to 20 percent and easier still to hop from there to 9 0 percent.
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Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Jan 13, 2012
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