Iran could soon begin sensitive atomic activities in an underground facility deep inside a mountain, diplomatic sources said on Wednesday, a move that would up the ante in a stand-off with big powers demanding Tehran curb such work.
Iranian experts have carried out the necessary preparations at Fordow near city of Qom, paving the way for the Islamic Republic to start higher-grade uranium enrichment at the site on a former military base.
The machines, equipment and nuclear material needed have been transferred and installed at Fordow, the sources added, suggesting the work itself — until now conducted above ground at another location — could start when Iran takes the decision.
“They are ready to start feeding,” a diplomatic source said, referring to the process in which low-enriched uranium gas is refined by centrifuges to increase the fissile isotope ratio.
Tension is escalating between Western powers and Iran after a U.N. nuclear watchdog report last month that said Tehran appeared to have worked on designing a nuclear weapon, and that secret research to that end may be continuing.
The United States and its European allies have seized on the unprecedented document by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to crank up the sanctions pressure on Iran, one of the world’s largest oil producers.
Enriched uranium can be used to fuel power plants and other types of reactors, which is Iran’s stated aim, or provide material for atomic bombs if processed much further, which the West suspects is the country’s ultimate intention.
Nuclear proliferation expert Shannon Kile noted that Iran earlier this year announced it would shift its most sensitive enrichment activity to Fordow but said that the actual start would still be significant.