by Jay Deshmukh
TEHRAN, IRAN - Iran said on Monday it is considering plans to start building two new uranium enrichment plants from March, with the sites concealed in the mountains to avert air strikes.
The announcement from Iran's atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi comes just days after the UN nuclear watchdog raised concerns that Tehran could be building a nuclear warhead.
"Inshallah (God willing), in the next Iranian year (starting in March) as ordered by the president (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), we may start the construction of two new enrichment sites," Salehi told ISNA news agency.
He said the enrichment capacities of the new sites would be similar to the existing facility in the central city of Natanz, where Tehran is refining uranium despite three sets of UN sanctions.
According to the latest UN nuclear watchdog report, Iran has installed in Natanz 8,610 centrifuges, the device which rotates at supersonic speed to enrich uranium.
Of these, 3,772 centrifuges are actively enriching uranium under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Iranian officials maintain Natanz has an annual capacity to produce about 30 tonnes of enriched uranium. According to IAEA, the Islamic republic currently has an estimated 2,065 kilogrammes (4,540 pounds) of low-enriched uranium.
Salehi said the new plants will be equipped with new generation centrifuges and the facilities would be hidden in mountains so as to protect them from "any attacks."
Washington and its ally Israel have not ruled out military strikes against Iran's nuclear sites in a bid to stop its gallopping atomic programme.
Iran is currently building its second uranium enrichment facility inside a mountain near the Shiite holy city of Qom, a development for which it was strongly rebuked by world powers in late 2009.
On December 5, Salehi said Iran needs 20 uranium enrichment plants to meet all its electricity needs for a growing population.
World powers suspect Iran is enriching uranium to make nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
Enriched uranium can be used as fuel to power nuclear reactors or in very high refined form to produce the fissile core of an atom bom.
Salehi's announcement is expected to raise tensions with Western powers, which have stepped up efforts to slap a fourth round of sanctions on the Islamic republic for defiantly pursuing its nuclear programme.
Iran is already at loggerheads with world powers for not accepting an IAEA-drafted deal which would supply it with nuclear fuel for a Tehran research reactor in return for the transfer of the bulk of its low-enriched uranium.
Tehran insists it wants a simultaneous exchange of the two materials, with the transfer taking place inside the country, a demand strongly opposed by world powers.
Tension between the two groups further rose after IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said on Thursday there were concerns Iran could be working on developing nuclear warheads.
"The information available to the agency ... raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile," he said in a report to the agency's board.
The Vienna-based IAEA has been investigating for a number of years intelligence reports which claim Iran is involved in weapons research.
These so-called "alleged studies" included uranium conversion, high explosives testing and the adaptation of a ballistic missile cone to carry a nuclear warhead.
Iranian officials have dismissed the latest IAEA report as "baseless." --AFP