- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) — The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency will visit Iran this weekend to seek more information about the country's nuclear program, a State Department official said Thursday.

The visit comes amid media reports of renewed activity at Iran's nuclear sites and about the construction of a secret centrifuge enrichment plant and other test facilities for centrifuges.

"Dr. (Mohammed) ElBaradei will be visiting Iran this weekend with his senior safeguard staff; a visit that we expect would initiate a process of rigorous examination by the IAEA into Iran's nuclear program," State Department spokesman Lou Fintor told United Press International.

ElBaradei heads the International Atomic Energy Commission, the nuclear agency of the United Nations, which is also investigating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

He will be seeking more information about "Iran's nuclear activities and intentions," said Fintor.

On Thursday, U.S. media quoted an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, as saying that has built a secret centrifuge enrichment plant near the city of Isphahan and other test facilities for centrifuges in a factory near the Capital, Teheran.

Also on Thursday, a Washington-based think tank reported intensive construction activities at an Iranian nuclear site. The Institute for Science and International Security also satellite pictures of the Natanz nuclear site near the city of Kashan, showing massive construction.

"We believe Iran is actively and secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program under the guise of a 'peaceful' civilian program," said Fintor, adding that the State Department cannot comments on the report provided by the National Council of Resistance of Iran because "it's an anti-Iranian terrorist organization."

But the State Department spokesman reminded that this is the same group that revealed at an August 2002 press conference the existence of two nuclear related facilities that Iran was building secretly, a heavy water production plant at a place called Arak and "a fuel fabrication facility" at Natanz. "That information proved to be accurate," he added.

He said State Department experts had concluded that Natanz was most likely a facility intended for uranium enrichment. Iran, Fintor said, was now "in the process of burying (this site) underground."

Revelations about the Natanz facility, the spokesman said, led IAEA director general to seek from Iran more information about Iran's nuclear activities and intentions and to request a visit.

"It would be logical for the IAEA chief to seek clarification from Iran about these new allegations" by the Iranian opposition groups when he visits Iran this weekend, according to the State Department spokesman.

"We look forward to hearing the results of the visit at the appropriate time and we urge Iran to make good on its claims of 'transparency' by accepting and fully implementing the IAEA's safeguarding strengthening Additional Protocol. And we call on Iran to allow the IAEA to investigate any credible allegation possibly impacting on Iran's IAEA safeguard compliance," Fintor said.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Science and International Security said commercial satellite images taken on Sept. 16, 2002, showed intensive activity at the Natanz gas centrifuge, uranium enrichment facility.

The site contains at least three main areas. The first includes three large underground structures, a vehicle tunnel leading to these structures and several incomplete smaller underground structures adjacent to the vehicle tunnel.

The second area is an aboveground fenced area that encloses six large buildings. In another area of the site, a large unfenced building seems to be complete and can be presumed to be the main administrative building or a research and development facility, ISIS said.

According to the ISI report, the two largest underground structures enclose a gross area of approximately 30,000 square meters each, or 60,000 square meters total ground area. The smaller structure, situated adjacent to both large structures has a gross ground area of approximately 8,800 square meters.

The ISIS says the two largest underground structures may be cascade halls, designed to house the centrifuges to enrich uranium. The smaller structure may serve this purpose as well, or could support the cascades in the larger buildings, for example as a control building.

These three halls, the report says, would give an estimated enrichment capacity sufficient to produce enough low enriched uranium for the annual reloads of a 1,000 megawatt-electric reactor. The halls appear to have thick walls, and the smaller structure does not have a roof on the underground building as of the time of the picture.

Some of the unidentified structures, the report says, would be needed for storing natural uranium hexafluoride, enriched material, and waste, or "tails" material, for handling fresh and exhaust air, electricity and water supplies, and for human access and habitability purposes.

ISIS says Iran may be building an enrichment plant underground to enable it to withstand aerial attack. The shape of the vehicle entrance tunnel, which appears to provide protection against a direct bomb or glide bomb hit on the plant itself, further supports this conclusion, the report says.

The buildings have the outward appearance of laboratories able to handle radioactive material, indicating the presence of radioactive materials, the report says.

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