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Reporters visit underground Iran nuclear plant
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami took a group of journalists deep underground on Wednesday into the heart of a nuclear plant which Washington wants dismantled and whose existence was kept secret until 2002.
About 30 local and foreign journalists visited Natanz uranium enrichment facility, 150 miles south of Tehran, the centerpiece of a disputed atomic fuel drive that Tehran suspended under international pressure in late 2003.
Iran says its nuclear program is nothing for the world to fear and will only be used to generate much-needed electricity. But Washington and the European Union fear Iran could use its nuclear plants to produce bombs.
The journalists, invited to accompany Khatami on a tour of the 1,110-acre site, were taken inside a building where, two levels below ground, they were shown a vast empty hall designed to house 50,000 enrichment centrifuges.
Centrifuges purify uranium fluoride gas into reactor or bomb fuel by spinning at high speeds. Low-grade enriched uranium is used in atomic power plants but highly enriched uranium can be used in the core of a bomb.
However, little was known about Iran's nuclear program until the existence of Natanz was revealed by an exiled opposition group in 2002.
While U.N. inspectors now regularly visit Iran's atomic facilities and have found no proof of atomic weapons production, they have often rebuked Tehran for concealing key information and activities.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said if Iran wanted to allay international concerns, it would let U.N. inspectors enter what he called suspicious sites and interview key officials associated with the plants.
PROTECTION FROM ATTACK
The journalists were not shown any centrifuges or taken to a pilot enrichment facility in Natanz which contains dozens of the machines, currently idled while Iran discusses the future of its nuclear program with the European Union.
Iranian officials said the main enrichment facility at Natanz was built more than 18 meters (54 feet) below ground due to "security problems."
Defense experts say this is a precaution against possible aerial attack by the United States or Israel, which have vowed to stop Iran acquiring nuclear arms.
Approaching the complex, ringed by arid mountains, journalists counted at least 10 anti-aircraft batteries.
The EU wants Iran to permanently scrap Natanz and other nuclear fuel work in return for assistance with developing nuclear energy and other economic and security cooperation.
Iran says the suspension of nuclear fuel work is merely a temporary confidence-building measure.
"We can start test enrichment at any time," said Ehsan Monajemi, construction project manager at Natanz.
"The sealing of the facilities has affected the morale of our people. It would be sad if it continued."
Sensitive fuel work has also been frozen at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan, which the journalists visited and which is designed to prepare the uranium gas for Natanz.