Iran may be "struggling" with new nuclear machines

Mon Feb 27, 2012 5:56pm GMT

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran is still relying on decades-old technology to expand its nuclear programme, a fact that suggests it might be having difficulties developing more modern machines that could speed up production of potential bomb material, experts say.

A report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog last week said Iran was significantly stepping up its uranium enrichment, a finding that sent oil prices higher on fears tensions between Tehran and the West could escalate into military conflict.

Israel has threatened to launch pre-emptive strikes to prevent Iran getting the bomb and Defence Minister Ehud Barak has said Tehran's continued technological progress mean it could soon pass into a "zone of immunity," suggesting time was running out for an effective military intervention.

But, contrary to some Western media reports in the run-up to Friday's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, Iran does not yet seem ready to deploy advanced enrichment equipment for large-scale production, despite years of development work, experts told Reuters.

Instead, the IAEA document showed Iran was preparing to install thousands more centrifuges based on an erratic and outdated design, both in its main enrichment plant at Natanz and in a smaller facility at Fordow buried deep underground.

"It appears that they are still struggling with the advanced centrifuges," said Olli Heinonen, a former chief nuclear inspector for the Vienna-based U.N. agency.

"We do not know whether the reasons for delays are lack of raw materials or design problems."

Nuclear expert Mark Fitzpatrick said Iran had been working on "second-generation models for over ten years now and still can't put them into large-scale operation."   Continued...

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