Al Arabiya News, a prominent news channel in the Arab world, is reporting that Iran has installed new centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear site:
Iran has activated a new generation of centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear site that will greatly speed up its uranium enrichment activities, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday.
“Approximately 6,000 centrifuges were working, 3,000 have been added to that amount. (Now) there are 9,000,” he said in a speech broadcast on state television.
The President had verified comments made by a nuclear official earlier.
“Today we witnessed the activation of the first cascade of these centrifuges,” the head of the Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, said in a speech also broadcast on state television.
“They increase Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium by three times,” he said. (Al Arabiya News)
Iran previously announced that it had installed new centrifuges at its Fordow nuclear site, also. In my previous post, I quoted David Albright on the subject of when Iran might have enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) to make a bomb:
“At the current rate, Albright said, it would likely take Iran till the end of 2013 to enrich enough 20 percent uranium to be further processed for use in one bomb. If Iran were to get three sets of new generation centrifuges working at Fordo and Natanz, they could produce enough material by the end of next year  that could be further enriched to weapons-grade, he said.”
” ‘Where Israel would get more nervous is if Iran started to install hundreds of advanced centrifuges underground,’ which would mean a ‘breakout capability over about six months,’ Albright said, referring to the ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade. (bloomberg.com)
With the latest announcement of 3000 more centrifuges at Natanz, the 2013 estimate no longer applies. That estimate was made in late 2011, based on the number of centrifuges in operation at that time. Since then, Iran has expanded its enrichment of uranium at Fordow (the underground site near Qom). That facility can house a maximum of 3000 centrifuges. And the newest centrifuges installed at Fordow are said to be the more-efficient and latest generation models.
The announcement on Feb. 15th that 3000 more centrifuges of the latest model have been installed at Natanz greatly increases the ability of Iran to make highly enriched uranium. They now have sufficient capability to make more 20% HEU and to further process that material into weapons grade 90% HEU.
As for the time needed to reach that goal, Iran is now able to make enough HEU for several nuclear bombs before the end of 2012. It also appears that Iran is close to achieving the “breakout capability” that David Albright mentioned, which could give them a nuclear bomb within 6 months or less.
The other issue to consider is whether Iran will use its centrifuges to make a large quantity of 20% HEU, before moving to purify weapons grade 90% HEU, or whether they will rush to make a nuclear bomb as soon as possible. Iran is believed to currently possess sufficient 20% HEU (about 100 kg) to make a few nuclear bombs, if they purify it immediately. This process would take several more months, if it is now underway. So Iran could choose to make a few nuclear bombs sooner, or a larger number of nuclear bombs later. But even with the later time frame, they could complete work on at least several nuclear bombs within the 2012 calendar year.
There has been discussion in the U.S. and Israel recently about the possibility of a military strike against Iran, to prevent them from enriching sufficient uranium to make a nuclear bomb. The Fordow facility is well-protected under “80 meters (265 feet) of rock and soil.” (Reuters) But that greater protection comes with a trade-off; it is a much smaller facility, and cannot be easily expanded. The prominent discussion of possible military action against Iran, and the fact that the larger Natanz facility is much more vulnerable to military strikes than the Fordow facility, may push Iran toward the “fewer bombs sooner” option.
More on this topic in my book:
Notes on the Apocalypse: 2012
My book on preparing for the end times:
Apocalypse Survival Guide for Christians