(photo credit: Stringer Iran / Reuters)
TEHRAN - Iran aims to triple its production capacity for higher grade uranium and is shifting that nuclear enrichment work from a site it has used for years to one that was only disclosed in 2009, state broadcaster IRIB reported on Wednesday.
"This year, under the supervision of the (International Atomic Energy) Agency, we will transfer 20 percent enrichment from the Natanz site to the Fordow site and we will increase the production capacity by three times," the head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, told reporters after a cabinet meeting, IRIB reported.
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Iran's uranium enrichment is at the heart of a standoff with countries, led by the United States, that believe the Islamic Republic is developing nuclear weapons, something it denies.
Several rounds of international sanctions have failed to force Iran to curb enrichment which it considers its sovereign right and Wednesday's announcement that it will up output rather than reduce it looked certain to further alarm Western powers.
Enriched uranium can be used to fuel power plants, Iran's stated aim, or provide bomb material if processed much further.
On Monday, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said he had received new evidence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear work, comments President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed as being dictated by Iran's foe Washington.
Iran started enriching uranium to 20 percent purity in early 2010 after talks on a nuclear fuel swap -- under which other countries would supply the higher grade duel Iran needs for a medical research reactor -- broke down.
The move was a worrying development for the West as it took Iran's enrichment level closer to the 90 percent needed for making atomic bombs. A much lower level of enrichment is needed for electricity production and the move to 20 percent enrichment increased suspicions about Iran's peaceful motives.
"After we increase the production capacity in Fordow by three times, then we will stop the 20 percent section of the Natanz site and will transfer it completely to Fordow," Abbasi-Davani said.
The shift from Natanz, near Isfahan in central Iran, to Fordow, near Qom, south of the capital, was an answer to a second letter sent to Iran by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano last week about the agency's concerns, he added.
Abbasi-Davani's announcement came shortly before the IAEA board, meeting in Vienna, was due to discuss Iran's nuclear program, probably later on Wednesday.
In its latest report on Iran, in late May, the agency said that the Islamic state had informed it in February of plans to begin feeding nuclear material into enrichment cascades at Fordow "by this summer".
But the IAEA added that as of May 21 no centrifuges had been introduced into the facility.
Iran only disclosed the existence of the Fordow site, inside a mountain bunker, in September 2009, after Western intelligence had detected it.