Iran is recruiting staff relentlessly to work on its nuclear program, is making steady progress in its uranium enrichment, and has constructed several facilities for nuclear testing outside Tehran whose precise location is known only to high-ranking officials, according to an Iranian source who said he was hired recently as a researcher at one of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In a telephone interview with this reporter, who has made several reporting trips to Iran in recent years, the source — who spoke on condition of anonymity — said it had been “very hectic” of late at the facility where he is employed. “More and more young graduates and people are brought in every day,” he said. “We have been working non-stop.”

The information provided by the source could not be independently verified. The contact would not specify where he is employed.

The Iranian researcher said he was speaking because he wanted the outside world to know that, despite attacks on Iran’s top scientists and other pressures aimed at halting the nuclear program, “we are not afraid and we have continued to progress.”

Without detailing the quantities involved, the source said that Iran had already enriched uranium to 30 percent, and “by next year, we hope to reach up to 50 or even 60 percent. The experience and knowledge is there, but getting the right parts at times has been difficult.” He said some equipment being received was “not reliable and sometimes defective.”

An Iranian member of parliament spoke earlier this summer about a need for 50-60% enriched uranium, ostensibly for nuclear propulsion for ships.

Iran has received assistance for its nuclear program from various countries, including Russia, Pakistan and North Korea, Western diplomats say. Some centrifuges and centrifuge components were obtained in the 1990s from a procurement network run by the Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, and some subsequent Iranian centrifuge design has reportedly been based on the Pakistani designs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sets out his 'red line' for Iran on a cartoon bomb drawing during a September 27 speech to the General Assembly (photo credit: Avi Ohayun, GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sets out his ‘red line’ for Iran on a cartoon bomb drawing during a September 27 speech to the General Assembly (photo credit: Avi Ohayun, GPO)

The Iranian researcher’s comments came soon after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted in TV interviews that Iran’s nuclear drive had to be halted “at the enrichment stage.” In a speech to the UN last Thursday, Netanyahu said Iran was “well into the second stage” — of “medium enrichment” of uranium for a bomb. “By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

The researcher said “many of our laboratories and testing facilities” have been constructed underground, and spoke of “other non-official test facilities outside of Tehran.” Only high-ranking officials had information on these, he said.

Professor Uzi Even at his Tel Aviv University office (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Professor Uzi Even at his Tel Aviv University office (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Professor Uzi Even, one of the founders of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, told The Times of Israel a month ago that he believes the regime in Iran has already covertly created the 20-25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium necessary to conduct a successful underground test.

In response to the Iranian contact’s comments, Even elaborated on Iran’s progress. He said there was “no reason or need for Iran to enrich uranium” unless it was aiming to build a nuclear arsenal,” and then described how Iran has gone about doing so.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz enrichment facility in 2008 (photo credit: www.president.ir)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz enrichment facility in 2008 (photo credit: www.president.ir)

Even said the “amount of material flow required for the first enrichment stage — to 3% from natural abundance of 0.7% — is highest, and thus requires many thousands of centrifuges.” This had been going on at Iran’s Natanz facility for five years.

The second stage of enrichment — to 20% — “requires a much smaller effort,” he said, involving 2,000 centrifuges — a fifth of the centrifuges used in stage one. This has been carried out at Iran’s Fordo underground plant, near Qom, for the past two years, Even said, stressing that he was basing himself solely on publicly available information and had no access to classified material.

Finally, the third stage of enrichment — from 20% to 90%, or weapon-grade — “requires even fewer centrifuges, 500 units, and can be easily hidden in a small underground unit, not much bigger than 1,000 square meters, that is almost impossible to detect from a satellite and can be easily hidden anywhere in Iran.”

“At this concentration,” Even went on, “turning the gaseous compound used in enrichment into a solid core required for weapon is tricky, because it can become ‘critical’ and cause a radiation accident.” He stressed that such an accident would not be akin to a bomb exploding, but would “release enough radiation to kill the people handling the device.”

There have been various reports of mysterious explosions at Iranian nuclear facilities in recent years, including one at the uranium enrichment facility at Isfahan last November. The IAEA has also repeatedly sought access to the Parchin facility, where it suspects Iran has carried out tests relating to its nuclear program and has then sought to cover up evidence of such testing.

Even estimated that the Iranians have already accumulated enough weapons-grade fissile material to try to design a nuclear warhead. “They could test it underground tomorrow,” he said, “but it is still several years before such a design could be made to fit the missiles they have. For two or three years,” he concluded, “Iran cannot be considered a nuclear threat to anyone.”

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Sabina Amidi has made several visits to Iran in the past three and a half years, and reported from Tehran on the 2009 presidential elections and their violent aftermath.