By Frank James
Just days before dozens of world leaders converge on Washington, D.C. to discuss how to make the world safer from nuclear weapons, Iran has unveiled new centrifuges that theoretically would allow it to more quickly produce weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons.
As the BBC reports:
Iran's president has unveiled new "third-generation" centrifuges that its nuclear chief says can enrich uranium much faster than current technology.
The centrifuges would have separation power six times that of the first generation, Ali Akbar Salehi said in a speech marking National Nuclear Day.
Uranium enrichment is the central concern of Western nations negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme.
The new technology could shorten the time it takes to build a nuclear bomb.
Tehran insists its nuclear programme is solely for peaceful purposes.
Friday's announcement comes as members of the UN Security Council discuss a new round of sanctions against Iran over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment.
The ambassadors from the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany - the so-called P5+1 - described the talks as worthwhile, but said their meetings would continue in the coming weeks.
China has been under pressure from the US and others to support new sanctions and took part in the meeting despite its objections.
The Council on Foreign Relations provides excellent background information on the Iran's nuclear program and the response of the U.S. and other global players to Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Here's a key passage that helps explain the role of the centrifuges:
David Albright, an expert on Iran's nuclear program and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, estimates Iran is producing roughly 2.77 kg of LEU per day (PDF), a rate that has remained consistent throughout 2009. Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for nonproliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says if Iran were to stockpile sufficient LEU they would be able to produce 25 kg of weapons-grade uranium for production of a single bomb "within a couple of months," a timeline Albright agreed with during a February 2009 interview with CFR.org. Iran is using centrifuges to enrich uranium hexafluoride gas, increasing the concentration of uranium-235. Senior American officials, speaking on background, told reporters in September 2009 that a second enrichment facility under construction near Qom could hold about 3,000 centrifuge machines. "Now, that's not a large enough number to make any sense from a commercial standpoint," the official said. "But if you want to use the facility in order to produce a small amount of weapons-grade uranium, enough for a bomb or two a year, it's the right size."
The Federation of American Scientists has a good explainer of what centrifuges do and their role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.