By Terry Atlas
Iran may achieve the “critical capability” to process low-enriched uranium into material for a nuclear weapon without detection by international inspectors by mid-2014, according to a report by a research group.

Iran would reach this capability by acting on plans to install thousands of additional enrichment centrifuges at its Natanz and Fordow sites, according to David Albright, a former nuclear inspector, and Christina Walrond of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

Enlarge image Iran May Achieve Nuclear Breakout Capability by Middle of 2014 

An Iranian worker puts on the final touches to a mural of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at Enghelab square in Tehran. Photographer: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Preventing Iran from achieving the capability to break out from nuclear safeguards will require international efforts to limit the number and type of centrifuges built by the nation, according to the report issued yesterday.

“Although increasing the frequency and type of inspections at the enrichment plants is important, it is by no means sufficient to prevent Iran from achieving critical capability,” according to the analysts.

President Barack Obama has said the U.S. will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. America and other world powers are seeking an initial agreement halting Iran’s production of 20 percent enriched uranium — one processing step short of weapons-grade — and removing the stockpile of such medium-enriched uranium so that it can’t be diverted for weapons.

Enrichment Focus

The institute’s report focuses instead on Iran’s production of low-enriched uranium, usable as reactor fuel for power generators, which may be further enriched to bomb grade given time and sufficient centrifuges. Albright and Walrond cited scenarios in which current safeguard measures would be insufficient to detect quickly an Iranian decision to divert enough low-enriched uranium to make weapons-grade material for one or more nuclear weapons.

“Breakout times at critical capability would be so short that there simply would not be enough time to organize an international diplomatic or military response,” the analysts said.

Iran’s leaders have said its nuclear program is for civilian purposes. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hasn’t made a decision to produce a bomb, though the nation is developing its capability to do so.

Enrichment facilities in Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, and Natanz, 130 miles southeast of Tehran, are run by Iran and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran says the 20 percent enriched uranium, which has been of the most immediate global concern, is being processed to provide fuel for a research reactor used to produce medical isotopes.

The institute’s report says monitoring alone isn’t enough and that international negotiations should press for a halt to installation of additional centrifuges and set a cap on the total number and capabilities of those production devices.

The report also raises the possibility that Iran may be building another enrichment facility that it hasn’t declared to international monitors and that would provide an alternative route to a breakout nuclear-weapons capability.