VIENNA - Iran is ready to sharply expand its uranium enrichment in an underground site after installing all the centrifuges it was built for, a UN nuclear report showed on Friday, a development likely to fuel Western alarm over Tehran's nuclear aims.
The Islamic state has put in place nearly 2,800 centrifuges that the Fordow enrichment site, buried deep inside a mountain, was designed for and could soon double the number of them operating to almost 1,400, according to the confidential International Atomic Energy Agency report obtained by Reuters.
Tehran has produced about 233 kg (512 pounds) of higher-grade enriched uranium since 2010, an increase of 43 kg since August this year, according to the report issued in Vienna.
The Iranians have used 96 kg of the uranium refined to 20 percent of fissile purity for conversion into fuel for its medical research reactor in Tehran, the report said.
Such conversions make it harder for the material to be processed into 90 percent, or bomb-grade, enriched uranium and could be a step by Tehran meant in part to counter Western suspicions of a covert atomic bomb program.
But the IAEA report also said that "extensive activities" at the Parchin military compound - an allusion to suspected Iranian attempts to remove evidence - would seriously undermine an agency investigation into indications that research relevant to developing a nuclear explosive were conducted there.
The IAEA delivered its latest quarterly Iran report 10 days after US President Barack Obama's re-election raised hopes of a revival of nuclear diplomacy with Iran following speculation that Israel might bomb Iranian nuclear facilities.
Iran denies aiming to acquire nuclear weapons, saying its atomic program is solely for peaceful energy purposes.
First nuclear plant may have suffered new setback
Iran unloaded nuclear fuel from its first atomic power plant last month, the IAEA report also report said, a few months after the Russian builder said the long-postponed reactor was operating at full capacity.
The Bushehr plant is a symbol of what the Islamic Republic says is its peaceful nuclear ambitions, disputed by the West, and any new hitch would probably be seen as an embarrassment both for Tehran and Moscow, whose experts help run it.
The transfer of fuel assemblies from the reactor core to a spent fuel pond meant the plant was shut down, a diplomat familiar with the issue said. "It was certainly not foreseen, that's for sure," he said.
The reason for the unexpected move was unclear but it could be a sign of a new problem in running the Russian-built, 1,000-megawatt reactor near the Gulf city of Bushehr.