The Iranian government approved a plan yesterday to build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities, a dramatic expansion, in defiance of UN demands that it halt the programme.
The decision comes only two days after the UN nuclear watchdog agency censured Iran, demanding it immediately stop building a newly revealed enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom and freeze all uranium enrichment activities. The rebuke angered Iran, raising demands from politicians to cut back co-operation with the UN.
The enrichment announcement is likely to stoke already high tensions between Iran and the West over its nuclear activities. The US and its allies have hinted of new UN sanctions if Tehran remains defiant. A cabinet meeting headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran to begin building five uranium enrichment sites that have already been studied, and propose five other locations for future construction within two months, the state news agency, IRNA, reported.
The cabinet ordered the new sites to be on the same scale as Iran's only other industrial enrichment plant currently in operation, near the town of Natanz in central Iran. About 8,600 centrifuges have been set up in Natanz, but only 4,000 are actively enriching uranium, according to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. The facility will eventually house 54,000 centrifuges.
In Washington, a senior US official said, "If carried out, this would constitute yet another violation of Iran's continuing obligation of suspension of all enrichment-related activities, including construction of new plants.
"There remains a fleeting opportunity for Iran to engage with the international community, if only it would make that choice," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the Obama administration had not yet released a formal response.
In Vienna, a spokeswoman said the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency would make no comment on Tehran's announcement.
The enrichment site near Qom, known as Fordo, is a smaller site that will house nearly 3,000 centrifuges. Its discovery earlier this year brought accusations that Iran was developing the site secretly, a claim Tehran denies.
In the enrichment process, uranium gas is spun in centrifuges to purify it. Enriched to a low degree, the result is fuel for a nuclear reactor – but highly enriched uranium can be used to build warheads. The US and its allies accuse Iran of secretly seeking to develop a bomb, a claim denied by Iran, which says it seeks only to generate electricity.
Iran aims to generate 20,000 megawatts of electricity from nuclear power plants in the next 20 years. IRNA said the new plants are needed to produce enough fuel for its future reactors. Mr Ahmadinejad told the Cabinet that Iran will need to install 500,000 centrifuges to produce between 250 to 300 tons of fuel annually, IRNA reported.
The IAEA censure against Iran on Friday, which had the support of China and Russia, was seen as a show of international unity in pressuring Tehran over its nuclear program - though there does not yet appear to be consensus on imposing sanctions.