Gas Processed by Iran's Centrifuges Could Be Used in Nuclear Warheads, Diplomats Say

Iran's new generation of advanced centrifuges have begun processing small quantities of the gas that can be used to make the fissile core of nuclear warheads, diplomats told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The diplomats emphasized that the centrifuges were working with minute amounts of the uranium gas. One diplomat said Tehran has set up only 10 of the machines — far too few to make enriched uranium in the quantities needed for an industrial-scale energy or weapons program.

The statements shed light on the Islamic Republic's experiments with its domestically developed IR-2 centrifuges, which can churn out enriched uranium at more than double the rate of the older machines that now form the backbone of Tehran's nuclear project.

The existence of the IR-2 centrifuges was made known last week by diplomats accredited to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency probing Iran's nuclear program for suspicions it may have been designed to make weapons.

Diplomats told the AP last week that the machines appeared to be running empty and said they could not say how many centrifuges had been set up at the facility linked to Iran's underground enrichment plant at Natanz.

One diplomat said Wednesday that the centrifuges were set up Jan. 20 and began processing minute amounts of the uranium gas soon afterward to test the machines.

He and others accredited to the IAEA demanded anonymity because their information was confidential.

Iran is under U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment, which it started developing during nearly two decades of covert nuclear activity built on illicit purchases and revealed only five years ago.

That secrecy heightened suspicions about Iran's intent, but Iranian leaders argued the country has a right to run a peaceful enrichment program to generate electricity and have dismissed the U.N. demands.

Previously, Iran has publicly focused on working with P1 centrifuges — outmoded machines it acquired on the black market in the 1980s. More than 3,000 of the older centrifuges are operating in an underground hall near Natanz, a city about 300 miles south of Tehran.