Iran has started feeding small amounts of uranium gas into centrifuges that can enrich it to weapons-grade level and is already running more than 1,300 of the machines, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) document said.
The confidential document -- a letter to Iranian officials from a senior IAEA staff member -- also protested an Iranian decision to prevent agency inspectors to visit the country's heavy-water reactor that, when built, will produce plutonium. Enriched uranium and plutonium can be used for the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
Last week, Iran said it had begun operating 3,000 centrifuges at its Natanz facility -- nearly 10 times the previously known number. The US, Britain, France and others criticized the announcement, but specialists and several world powers expressed skepticism that Iran's claims were true and diplomats in Vienna familiar with the state of the program said they were greatly exaggerated.
If so, the one-page letter reflected a swift advance in the program. A little more than two weeks ago, those diplomats had said Tehran was running only a little more than 600 centrifuges and had not introduced any uranium gas into them.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei had said last week that Iran was operating only several hundred centrifuges at Natanz.
The letter, signed by IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen and dated Wednesday said the agency wanted to "take note of the information provided by Iran ... that Iran has put into operation" 1,312 centrifuges -- the machines used to spin the gas into enriched uranium.
Heinonen's letter also cited Iranian information to the agency that "some UF6 is being fed" into the centrifuges, referring to the uranium gas that can be enriched to levels potent enough to be used for nuclear weaponization.
Iran says it wants to enrich only to lower levels suitable to generate nuclear power. But suspicions about its ultimate intentions have led to UN Security Council sanctions for its refusal to freeze its enrichment program.
It was unclear what the purpose of the uranium gas feed was.
A diplomat accredited to the IAEA, who demanded anonymity because he was disclosing confidential information, said the operation appeared to be part of preparing the centrifuges for producing enriched uranium and not yet part of the direct enrichment process, although traces of low-enriched uranium were being produced.
Another diplomat said that the process appeared to be last step before larger-scale enrichment could begin.
Specialists said smooth operation of 3,000 centrifuges would make enough material for a nuclear warhead within a year.
But Iranian officials recently acknowledged that 10 percent to 20 percent of the centrifuges were breaking down in test runs -- a rate one of the Vienna-based diplomats said was likely fairly accurate.
Iran last month announced it was unilaterally abrogating part of its Safeguards Agreements linked with the IAEA under which Tehran is obligated to report to the agency as soon as it decides to build new nuclear facility or expand an existing one.
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