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Iran to speed up nuclear fuel production at Natanz enrichment plant

Iran has announced that it will upgrade its Natanz uranium enrichment plant, allowing it to produce nuclear fuel faster.

Iran natanz nuclear plant 01 31 2013Enlarge
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facilities in April 2008. (Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran/Getty Images)

Iran has announced plans to significantly speed up its production of enriched uranium, to the alarm of those who fear the country is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

In a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency obtained by Reuters, the Iranian government said it planned to install new and more advanced centrifuges at its main enrichment plant, Natanz.

The next-generation machines are said to be capable of enriching uranium up to five times faster than the current rate, according to the Associated Press, which described the planned change as "a major technological update."

Diplomats told the AP that Iran wanted to install more than 3,000 of the new centrifuges in addition to the 10,000 already operating at Natanz. The upgrade is likely to take some time to complete, one source said.

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Iran maintains that its enrichment program is designed to provide fuel for nuclear power plants, though other countries are concerned that it could ultimately provide material for atomic warheads.

The Natanz plant enriches uranium to a grade well below that required for nuclear weapons: just 4 percent, according to the New York Times.

A newer plant, Fordow, can enrich it to a higher – though still sub-weapons grade – 20 percent, and is a particular source of concern to the West because it is hidden underground, the Times said.

The UN Security Council has repeatedly demanded that Iran stop enriching uranium. RIA Novosti reported that council member Russia on Thursday urged Tehran to freeze its enrichment activities after learning of the plans for Natanz, even though Moscow says it supports a civilian nuclear program in Iran.

The five Council members plus Germany are due to hold their next round of talks with Iran in February, though no date or location has yet been set.

The Iranian government says it remains fully committed to reaching a diplomatic solution to the dipute over its nuclear program, according to the Tehran Times.

More from GlobalPost: IAEA chief not hopeful on Iran nuclear talks

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/iran/130131/iran-nuclear-fuel-enrichment-natanz