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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ivanov Inspects a Secret Factory

Itar-TassIvanov picking up a centrifuge component in a workshop at the Kovrov plant as Kiriyenko, right, watches on Friday.
KOVROV, Vladimir Region -- First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov flew by helicopter to a top-secret plant playing a key role in Russia's uranium enrichment program -- and promised that Iran would never get its hands on the plant's technology.

Ivanov traveled on Friday to the Kovrov plant, 250 kilometers northeast of Moscow, to get a first-hand look at how the Kovrov Mechanical Plant has transformed from making machine guns to gas centrifuges, the equipment used to enrich uranium for use in nuclear power plants and weapons.

While the trip provided a rare peek into a secretive plant, it also offered some insight into how Ivanov, widely considered a top presidential contender, is positioning himself ahead of the March election.

Ivanov's popularity has surged as he has toured factories and defense bases across the country in recent months, receiving significant coverage on state television at each stop. His apparent main rival, fellow First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, has also taken up a punishing schedule of visits that have gotten generous airtime.

State television reporters and cameramen joined a few dozen journalists late Thursday for a bus ride from Moscow to the Kovrov plant. Ivanov arrived Friday by helicopter with Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, or RosAtom. Federal Security Service officers kept a sharp eye on the gathering.

"This is our know-how. These are our people," Ivanov proudly told the reporters in the courtyard of the plant. Nearby loomed a statue of Lenin.

Ivanov said Iran would never get a look at the plant's centrifuges. "This technology will never be transferred to anybody," he said.

Taking a dig at the West, Ivanov said Russia was in full compliance of international law, unlike Europe's Urenco, a manufacturer of enriched uranium. Iran has said the centrifuges in its controversial nuclear program are based on Urenco designs.

Reporters were barred from viewing a completed centrifuge because, as Ivanov said, it was "a commercial secret."

It is a security precaution as well, said the plant's chief designer, Alexander Samorodsky. "If we declassify everything, then people would start making centrifuges and enriching uranium in their backyards," he said.

He added, however, that "there are some talks" to export the equipment, possibly to China.

Centrifuges were made available to China about a decade ago, and the Chinese took them apart but still could not figure out how they worked, said an official with Tenex, the state nuclear fuel trader.

The Kovrov Mechanical Plant in January converted to centrifuges after building guns for more than 60 years. More than 300 million rubles ($11.5 million) was spent moving centrifuge production out of the adjacent Degtyarev plant, and the arms production into the Degtyarev plant, Kiriyenko said. The swap placed control of the nuclear equipment completely in state hands.

Kiriyenko said that more than 1 billion rubles would be invested into the Kovrov plant in the next few years, allowing it to quadruple production to 5 billion rubles in centrifuges. He did not provide more precise figures, but said the plant would build 2.6 billion rubles worth of centrifuges for the RosAtom this year, twice what it had built last year.

The plant swap is part of a government drive to gather disparate nuclear assets into a state-owned holding, Atomprom, as it seeks to revive the country's nuclear sector and better compete abroad. Centrifuge production is taking on urgency, with the government planning to build up to 40 nuclear power plants over the next two decades. The plans call for nuclear power to account for one-quarter of all national power generation, compared to one-sixth now.

Kovrov is one of only two Russian plants that make centrifuges. The other, Tochmash, is also based in the Vladimir region. Centrifuges from the two plants are shipped to the country's four uranium enrichment facilities.

Kovrov director Maxim Kovalchuk gave Ivanov and Kiriyenko a private tour of the plant's classified premises. "Russia is 15 years ahead of the United States and European countries," he told them, RIA-Novosti reported.

Reporters were allowed into one workshop that makes components for centrifuges. The deputy director for the Vladimir region's branch of the Federal Security Service told the visitors to stay together and not wander around the premises.

Workers, mostly women wearing white headscarves and blue gowns, stood at workstations, lathing parts for the centrifuges.

"There are elements that still can't be mechanically produced, and only the tenderness of a woman's hands can feel the microns," Kiriyenko said.

The centrifuges are designed to work for up to 30 years nonstop.

Ivanov and Kiriyenko were walked through a maze of lettuce-green equipment in the shop. The machines were stopped to allow the directors to explain the plant's work.

Ivanov stopped at one point to talk to the female workers. "Do you have any requests or questions?" he asked one. "Everything is fine," she replied.

Speaking to a reporter afterward, Nadezhda Bolshakova, a lathe worker, described Ivanov as kind and understanding. Her co-worker Nadezhda Aleksandrova said she liked that he had stopped to speak with them. She added that she had not decided whom she would vote for in the presidential election next year, but said she liked Medvedev.

With the country nearing the election season, the Kremlin seems to be making sure that Ivanov, Medvedev and, more recently, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin get roughly the same amount of coverage in the state media. On Friday, Naryshkin unveiled the start of production of a Fiat model at Severstal-Avto's plant in Naberezhnye Chelny.

On Wednesday, Ivanov together with Putin unveiled a $1 billion nanotechnology initiative in Moscow. Ivanov started the week by presiding over the launch of the long-awaited Yury Dolgoruky nuclear submarine in the Arctic town of Severodvinsk.

While Medvedev spent an uncharacteristic day out of the media spotlight Friday, he is likely to re-emerge this week as Ivanov takes a short break.

"Thank God. No trips will take place this week," a source close to Ivanov said Sunday, noting that the past month had been particularly hectic.

On Friday, Ivanov is to preside over a meeting of the United Aircraft Corporation, the state aviation holding that he heads, the source said.