Defiant Iran begins nuclear fuel work at underground site

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Iran has begun uranium enrichment at a new underground site built to withstand possible air strikes, in another show of defiance against western pressure to rein in Tehran’s nuclear programme.

The operations at the bunker-like facility south of Tehran, reported by the hardline Kayhan daily newspaper yesterday, are small in comparison to Iran’s main enrichment site. But the centrifuges at the underground labs are considered more efficient and are shielded from aerial surveillance and protected against air strikes by up to 300ft of mountain rock.

Uranium enrichment is at the core of the international stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme, as the West fears Iran could use its enrichment facilities to develop high-grade nuclear material for warheads.

Iran – which claims it only seeks nuclear reactors for energy and research – has sharply increased its threats and military posturing recently against stronger pressures, including US sanctions targeting Iran’s central bank and the threat of an EU oil embargo.

A senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard force was quoted yesterday as saying Tehran’s leadership will order the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic oil route, if the country’s petroleum exports are blocked.

“The supreme authorities … have insisted that if enemies block the export of our oil, we won’t allow a drop of oil to pass through the Strait of Hormuz,” said Revolutionary Guard deputy commander Ali Ashraf Nouri.

The Kayhan, which is close to Iran’s ruling clerics, said Tehran has begun injecting uranium gas into sophisticated centrifuges at the Fordo facility near the holy city of Qom.

It reported: “Iran has begun uranium enrichment at the Fordo facility amid heightened foreign enemy threats.” Kayhan’s editor is a representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all important matters of state.

The country has been enriching uranium to less than five per cent for years, but it began to further enrich part of its uranium stockpile to nearly 20 per cent as of February 2010, saying it needs the higher-grade material to produce fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical radioisotopes for cancer patients. Weapons-grade uranium is usually about 90 per cent enriched.

Iran says the higher enrichment activities will be carried out at Fordo. These operations are of particular concern to the West because uranium at 20 per cent enrichment can be converted much more quickly for use in a nuclear warhead than uranium enriched to only 3.5 per cent.

Built next to a military complex, Fordo was long kept secret and was only acknowledged by Iran after it was identified by western intelligence agencies in September 2009.

The facility is a hardened tunnel and is protected by air defence missile batteries and the Revolutionary Guard. The site is located about 20 miles north of Qom.

“The Fordo facility, like Natanz, has been designed and built underground. The enemy doesn’t have the ability to damage it,” the semi-official Mehr news agency said yesterday.