Iran prepared to up nuclear programme: Diplomats

VIENNA (AP) - Iran is poised for a major technological update of its uranium enrichment programme, allowing it to vastly increase production of the material that can be used for both reactor fuel and nuclear warheads, diplomats said Thursday.

The diplomats said that Iran last week told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it wants to install thousands of high-technology machines at its main enriching site at Natanz, in central Iran. The machines are estimated to be able to enrich up to five times faster than the present equipment.

Iran argues it has a right to enrich for a civilian nuclear power programme. But suspicion persists that the real aim is nuclear weapons, because it hid much of its programme until it was revealed from the outside more than a decade ago and because of what the IAEA says are indications that it worked secretly on weapons development. Defying UN Security Council demands that it halt enrichment, Iran has instead expanded it.

One of the diplomats said Iranian officials informed the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog that they planned to mount as many as 3,132 of the new-generation centrifuges. He said a confidential note circulated Thursday to the IAEA's 35-nation board cited Iranian officials as saying that domestically developed IR-2m centrifuges would be used.

Iran says it is enriching only to power reactors and for scientific and medical purposes. But because of its nuclear secrecy, many countries fear that Iran may break out from its present production that is below the weapons-grade threshold and start enriching to levels of over 90 per cent, used to arm nuclear weapons.