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Images show Iran heavy-water plant nearly done

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VIENNA (Reuters) - New satellite images show a heavy water plant in Iran, intended to supply a research reactor that could eventually produce plutonium for one atomic bomb a year, is nearly complete, a U.S. think-tank said on Friday.


The photos of the plant in Arak, 240 km south of Tehran, were taken in February by the U.S. commercial satellite firms DigitalGlobe and Space Imaging and provided to Reuters by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a U.S. think-tank.


"Adjacent to the reactor construction site (in Arak) is the heavy water production plant, which is almost completed and is anticipated to supply the necessary heavy water for the heavy water reactor," ISIS said in an analysis of the imagery.


While there is nothing illegal about the plant, the news that it is nearly done will likely deepen U.S. suspicions that Iran wants heavy-water technology to get plutonium for bombs.


On Thursday, Western diplomats close to the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Iran had already laid the foundations for the 40-megawatt heavy-water research reactor at Arak, despite calls by the European Union and the United Nations to scrap the project.


Heavy-water reactors can be used to produce significant amounts of bomb-grade plutonium, which can then be extracted from the spent fuel by a process known as reprocessing.


"No evidence of any reprocessing facilities can be seen in the satellite images," ISIS said in its analysis of the imagery.


David Albright, who heads ISIS and was formerly a U.N. weapons inspector, said he had also seen photographs of what appeared to be steam coming out of the Arak heavy water plant.


"We think they have been testing it," Albright said.


The Arak heavy-water production plant, along with the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, was revealed by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in August 2002, an exile group that described it as part of a secret nuclear weapons programme.


Iran, which denies wanting to produce anything but electricity with its atomic facilities, later declared the Natanz and Arak sites to the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).


Washington sided with the NCRI view, accusing Tehran of pursuing weapons under cover of a civilian atomic programme.


Iran has not been ordered by the EU to halt the heavy-water production plant, but ISIS analyst Corey Hinderstein said the plant had no purpose other than to supply the future research reactor -- which Iran has been urged not to build.


© Reuters 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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