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Israeli, US reports: Huge blast set back enrichment 9 months

Iran says Natanz was hit by ‘small explosion,’ claims damage quickly repairable

Blast occurred in the nuclear enrichment facility’s electricity distribution center, according to Iranian atomic agency spokesman, who vows ‘revenge on the Zionist regime’

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, is interviewed from his hospital bed on April 12, 2021, after being injured the day before in a reported fall at the Natanz nuclear facility. (Screen capture: Twitter)
Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, is interviewed from his hospital bed on April 12, 2021, after being injured the day before in a reported fall at the Natanz nuclear facility. (Screen capture: Twitter)

The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said Monday that the country’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant was hit by a “small explosion” the previous day, after the government labeled it an Israeli act of “sabotage.”

“The incident occurred at the electricity distribution center. There was a small explosion,” spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi told the Tasnim news agency, adding that the “damaged sectors can be quickly repaired.”

Iran initially reported a power blackout had hit the Natanz enrichment site Sunday, a day after it announced it had started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges banned under the 2015 deal limiting its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Kamalvandi spoke from his hospital bed, after he was hurt Sunday while touring Natanz. He fell from a height of seven meters, suffering head and ankle fractures, according to official Iranian reports.

He was said to have been performing an inspection at the time of the injury.

His comments came after Iran blamed Israel for the incident at Natanz, which according to The New York Times was caused by a massive blast at the centrifuges’ power supply. Israeli and US media quoted unnamed intelligence sources as saying it was believed to have caused significant damage to the centrifuges and set back Iran’s uranium enrichment ability by at least nine months.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear program, said officials had launched an effort to provide emergency power to the nuclear facility. He said the sabotage had not stopped enrichment there, without elaborating.

According to Khatibzadeh, the attack affected a number of first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, “which will all be replaced with advanced” ones.

He vowed that Iran’s response to the attack would be “revenge on the Zionist regime” when and where Tehran chooses. “If the purpose was to interrupt the path of lifting the oppressive sanctions against Iran, they will certainly not reach their goal,” he said.

Iran has called the incident an act of “nuclear terrorism.”

File: Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

Senior Israeli officials hinted at, but did not confirm, involvement in the apparent cyberattack, although the Times report cited American and Israeli intelligence officials confirming that there had been an Israeli role.

An unnamed intelligence official told Israel’s Kan news that the damage at the site was “extensive” and that several “different types of centrifuges” installed at the top-secret underground center were harmed, setting back Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. Iran had publicly inaugurated cascades of advanced IR-5 and IR-6 centrifuges at the facility on Saturday.

The source said Iran’s abilities had been seriously set back and that the timing of the apparent strike was not coincidental.

Israel’s Channel 13, also citing unnamed intelligence officials, offered a similar assessment, saying that the cyberattack caused “severe damage at the heart of Iran’s enrichment program.”

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, in an image released on November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

Meanwhile, the Times, citing two intelligence officials briefed on the damage, said that “it had been caused by a large explosion that completely destroyed the independent — and heavily protected — internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges that enrich uranium.”

Sunday’s incident came as US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin landed in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The US, Israel’s main security partner, is seeking to reenter the 2015 atomic accord aimed at limiting Tehran’s program so that it cannot pursue a nuclear weapon — a move staunchly opposed by Israel, particularly Netanyahu.

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