Iran’s uranium efforts gathering steam - experts

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Washington - Iran's uranium enrichment effort has picked up speed and Tehran could produce enough fissile material needed for a nuclear weapon within four months, experts told United States lawmakers on Wednesday.

The rate of Iran's uranium enrichment has accelerated despite cybersabotage from the Stuxnet virus in 2009, the experts said.

Based on the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “it's clear that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon very quickly should it wish to do so”, said Stephen Rademaker of the Bipartisan Policy Centre in Washington.

Iran has produced 3 345kg of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent, according to the IAEA, which if it was enriched further would provide enough uranium for at least two atomic bombs, Rademaker told the House Armed Services Committee.

If the Iran leadership decided to go forward, “it would take them 35 to 106 days to actually have the fissile material for a weapon”, he said.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), told the same hearing that “it would take Iran at least four months in order to have sufficient weapon grade uranium... for a nuclear explosive device”.

Uranium 235 must be enriched close to 90 percent for use in an atomic bomb. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has said that the Iranians are about a year away from producing enough highly-enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon, a threshold that Washington views as a “red line”.

More than 9 000 Iranian centrifuges are churning out 158kg of 3.5 percent enriched uranium a month, three times the production rate compared to mid-2009, when the Stuxnet virus struck the program, Rademaker said.

The enrichment rate is “three times the rate of production prior to the Stuxnet virus, which many people have suggested somehow crippled their program”.

“So Stuxnet may have set them back, but not by very much, at least not sufficiently,” he added.

According to the New York Times, President Barack Obama and his predecessor in the White House, George W. Bush, approved the use of the Stuxnet virus to disrupt Iran's nuclear program, in the first known sustained US cyberattack.

Stuxnet - a complex virus developed jointly with Israel - sowed confusion at Iran's Natanz nuclear plant, the Times reported, but the virus later accidentally spread outside of Iran, appearing in computer systems other countries. - Sapa-AFP


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