Iran on Saturday began construction on a new nuclear power plant in the country’s southwest, Iranian state TV announced, a day after the international nuclear watchdog said Tehran had tripled its capacity to enrich uranium to 60 percent purity.
The announcement of the new plant came as Iran is rocked by nationwide anti-government protests that have challenged the country’s theocratic government and began after the death of a young woman in police custody.
The new 300-megawatt plant, known as Karoon, will take eight years to build and cost around $2 billion, the country’s state television and radio agency reported.
The plant will be located in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, near its western border with Iraq, it said.
The construction site’s inauguration ceremony was attended by Mohammad Eslami, head of Iran’s civilian Atomic Energy Organization, who first unveiled construction plans for Karoon in April.
Iran has one nuclear power plant at its southern port of Bushehr that went online in 2011 with help from Russia, but also several underground nuclear facilities.
#Iran’s nuclear chief today launched the construction of a 300-megawatt #nuclear power plant of “Karoon” in Darkhovin, Khuzestan province. The power plant will operate with pressurized water reactor (PWR) and the construction is expected to take about 8 years. pic.twitter.com/U1ZK3sxXVu
— Abas Aslani (@AbasAslani) December 3, 2022
The announcement of Karoon’s construction came less than two weeks after Iran announced it had begun producing enriched uranium at 60% purity at the country’s underground Fordo nuclear facility. The move is seen as a significant addition to the country’s nuclear program.
Enrichment to 60% purity is one short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.
Non-proliferation experts have warned in recent months that Iran now has enough 60%-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.
The move was condemned by Germany, France and Britain, the three Western European nations that remain in the Iran nuclear deal.
Recent attempts to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, which eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, have stalled.
However, last month, Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva said Iran has made “significant progress” toward producing 90% enriched uranium.
“The moment is coming when the greatest test of the international community will come to light, when Iran entertains [the idea of] enrichment at 90%, even if only symbolically,” he said.
Iran still would need to design a bomb and a delivery system for it, likely a months-long project.
Israel believes Iran wishes to build a nuclear bomb, has published intelligence it says reveals the Iranian weapons program and has reportedly carried out sabotage operations within the Islamic Republic to delay the development of such a weapon.
Iran has denied any nefarious intentions and claims its program is designed for peaceful purposes, though it has recently been enriching uranium to levels that international leaders say have no civil use.
Since September, Iran has been roiled by nationwide protests that have come to mark one of the greatest challenges to its theocracy since the chaotic years after its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The protests were sparked when Mahsa Amini, 22, died in custody on Sept. 16, three days after her arrest by Iran’s morality police for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women. Iran’s government insists Amini was not mistreated, but her family says her body showed bruises and other signs of beating after she was detained.
In a statement issued by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency on Saturday, the country’s national security council announced that some 200 people have been killed during the protests, the body’s first official word on the casualties. Last week, Iranian Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh tallied the death toll at more than 300.
The contradictory tolls are lower than the toll reported by Human Rights Activists in Iran, a US-based organization that has been closely monitoring the protest since the outbreak. In its most recent update, the group says that 469 people have been killed and 18,210 others detained in the protests and the violent security force crackdown that followed.
The United States unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — in 2018, under then-President Donald Trump. It reimposed sanctions on Iran, prompting Tehran to start backing away from the deal’s terms. Iran has long denied ever seeking nuclear weapons, insisting its nuclear program is peaceful.
Israel has long opposed the nuclear accord, saying it delayed rather than ended Iran’s nuclear progress and arguing that sanctions relief empowered Tehran’s proxy militias across the region, with expected incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu coming out strongly against the deal.