TEHRAN: Iran is to start building its third uranium enrichment plant in early 2011, a top official said, defying world powers which have slapped new sanctions on Tehran for pursuing the sensitive nuclear work.
Iran’s atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi, cited on state television late on Sunday, said the search for sites for 10 new enrichment facilities "is in its final stages.
"The construction of one of these will begin by the end of the (current Iranian) year (to March 2011) or the start of next year, inshallah (God willing)."
Iran is already enriching uranium at its main plant in the central city of Natanz and is building a second enrichment facility inside a mountain at Fordo, southwest of Tehran.
The country’s hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the planned construction of 10 new enrichment plants late in 2009 after Tehran was censured by the UN atomic watchdog over building the Fordo facility.
Salehi, who is also one of 12 vice presidents of Iran, has previously said that any new uranium plants the Islamic republic builds would be located at locations which cannot be targeted by air strikes.
He did not specify where the third plant would be located.
Iran’s arch-foes the United States and Israel have never ruled out military strikes against Tehran to halt its nuclear program which they suspect is aimed at making weapons.
Tehran denies the charge, saying its atomic program has purely peaceful goals.
Iran’s uranium enrichment program is at the heart of its nuclear controversy and the key reason for which a fourth round of UN sanctions was imposed on the Islamic republic on June 9.
Enriched uranium can be used as fuel to power nuclear reactors as well as to make the fissile core of an atom bomb.
The UN sanctions have been followed by unilateral punitive measures by the United States, the European Union, Australia and Canada.
The US and EU measures particularly target Iran’s energy sectors, especially with US President Barack Obama signing sanctions which aim to choke off Tehran’s access to petroleum products.
The Western powers have been particularly infuriated with Iran for defiantly enriching uranium to the 20-percent level, which theoretically brings it closer to the 90-percent level required to make an atom bomb.
Iran says it is enriching uranium to 20 percent to produce fuel for a research reactor in Tehran and because a potential deal with some of the world powers to supply the fuel is still embroiled in a deadlock.
On July 11, Salehi said Iran has produced more than 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of this high grade uranium, but added a few days later that it has no intention of "stockpiling" the sensitive material.
According to the May report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has produced around 2,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium at its Natanz facility.
Ahmadinejad ordered in February the refining of uranium to 20 percent after a swap deal, aimed at providing nuclear fuel for the Tehran reactor and drafted by the IAEA in October last year, hit a deadlock.
Brazil and Turkey brokered a counter proposal in Tehran on May 17 under which Iran would send its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in return for research reactor fuel to be supplied later.
But the world powers initially cold-shouldered that proposal and voted through a fourth set of sanctions. They raised questions about the counter proposal as they issued calls for discussing Iran’s overall nuclear program.
Iran says it has responded to their questions over the counter proposal and is waiting for an official date for a meeting with the Vienna group to discuss the details of the plan.
The IAEA, the United States, France and Russia, known as the Vienna group, are involved in thrashing out the issue of fuel supply to the Tehran reactor.
Iran’s representative to OPEC, Mohammad Ali Khatibi, said the US and EU sanctions "have not created any obstacles for the country in procuring gasoline."
Iran, OPEC’s second largest exporter, imports nearly one-third of its annual gasoline needs as it lacks the sufficient refining capacity.