Iran has built at least 15 advanced P-2 centrifuges, which could dramatically speed up its production of nuclear fuel, and will have hundreds more ready next year, an exiled opposition group said on Thursday.
The France-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has reported accurately on hidden Iranian nuclear activity in the past, said Tehran was making P-2 centrifuges at a secret site run by the "Iran Centrifuge Technology Company".
"According to the information obtained by the Iranian Resistance at least 15 P-2 centrifuges have been assembled so far and are being tested," Mohammad Mohaddessin, director of international relations for the NCRI, told a news conference. "Our intelligence shows that in the next year they would have hundreds of P-2 centrifuges," he added. It was not immediately possible to verify the NCRI's report. Iranian officials, and officials of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, were not immediately available for comment. Iran has denied claims by the group in the past.
Iran enriched uranium at its pilot nuclear fuel plant in April for the first time, using a network of 164 older, less sophisticated P-1 centrifuges, which spin at supersonic speeds to heighten the fissile element in uranium ore.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also announced then that Iran was pursuing research and development of P-2 centrifuges, which can purify uranium for use as power plant fuel or atomic bombs 2-3 times faster than the P-1 model.
Also in April, the NCRI said Iran was working at secret military sites to develop P-2s and that it was frequently relocating the operation to escape international scrutiny.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has been probing the origin and extent of secret nuclear activity in Iran since 2003.
The IAEA's governing board referred Tehran to the Security Council in February for failing to come clean on the work.
IAEA inspectors are monitoring Iran's declared operation of P-1 centrifuges at the Natanz pilot plant.
But tensions rose last week when Iran prevented inspectors from re-examining a larger underground section of Natanz under construction where "industrial scale" enrichment of uranium with thousands of centrifuges is planned, diplomats said.
Mohaddessin also said Iran was increasing the number of P-1 centrifuges - Iran has said it wants 3,000 working at Natanz by next year - and working quickly to complete a heavy water reactor at Arak that could yield produce plutonium for bombs.
Most diplomats and analysts say Iran remains 3-10 years way from enriching fuel to the high level required for a warhead.
The NCRI, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist groups and wants to oust Iran's clerical leaders, first disclosed covert uranium-enrichment work in the Islamic Republic in 2002.