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Introducing Iran's P-2 Centrifuges

Those who have sought to downplay Iran's nuclear program for sake of conflict avoidance by noting that Iran is only using inefficient P-1 centrifuge technology for enriching uranium will not take comfort in the latest information from Iran. Reportedly as part of Iran's deal with IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei to 'clarify unresolved questions' is the leaked revelation that Iran has been testing P-2 centrifuges at Natanz.

They said that few of the IR-2 centrifuges were operating and that testing appeared to be in an early phase, with the new machines rotating without processing any uranium gas.

More significant, the officials said, is the fact that Iran appears to have used know-how and equipment bought on the nuclear black market in combination with domestic ingenuity to overcome daunting technical difficulties and create highly advanced centrifuges.

What's the significance? P-2's can enrich uranium 2 to 3 times faster than P-1's, requiring far fewer in cascade to get the job done.

Early reading suggests that there may at least be some comfort in knowing that the testing is only in its early stages. But should there be? Read on.

The diplomats, who agreed to discuss the development only if granted anonymity because they weren't authorized to divulge the confidential information, said it was unclear whether the new generation centrifuges were in the underground facility or an aboveground pilot site at Natanz.

If the IAEA does not know where the testing is taking place, then they have therefor not laid hands or eyes on the P-2 systems and facilities. The only thing that 'appears' is, in fact, Iran's word. The fact remains - as the very existence of Iranian P-2 centrifuges once again demonstrates - that we do not even know what we do not know. So draw any measure of relief with extreme caution.

Iran has apparently overcome significant metallurgical hurdles in order to create their P-2 model, appropriately named the IR-2. David Albright puts proper perspective on the situation.

The P-2 centrifuge sold by Khan can enrich uranium gas up to three times faster than a P-1, but it is made from maraged steel — a high-nickel, low-carbon steel that is difficult to manufacture and hard to smuggle through international controls.

One of the diplomats said the Iranians had circumvented that problem by making the centrifuge's rotor tubes out of carbon fiber, presumably using machines and technology developed for Tehran's missile sector and using a German version as a model.

A former U.N. nuclear inspector, David Albright, said the ingenuity demonstrated by such a development was impressive.

"If you learn how to make carbon fiber rotors, you are very far ahead," said Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security tracks countries under nuclear suspicion. "They are much cheaper and easier to make, and you can learn to spin them very fast."

Using a hypothetical example of the efficiency of a P-2-based centrifuge compared with the P-1, Albright said 1,200 of the more advanced machines could produce enough material for a single nuclear warhead in a year, compared to 3,000 of the older model.

Very far ahead is right. Using missile production technology to master carbon fiber technology in order to advance Iran's P-2 centrifuge technology - with a German model. It puts a whole new spin on the term "dual-use technology." And it didn't happen overnight.