The UN atomic agency on Wednesday said Iran has installed additional advanced centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear plant, the site of a recent blast blamed on Israel.
According to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, seen by Reuters, Iran added two more cascades of IR-4 centrifuges and six clusters of IR-2m at its underground facility. The IAEA also confirmed that some of the centrifuges were in use and said the Islamic Republic plans to install another four cascades of the IR-4 at Natanz.
“On 21 April 2021, the Agency verified at FEP that: … six cascades of up to 1,044 IR-2m centrifuges; and two cascades of up to 348 IR-4 centrifuges… were installed, of which a number were being used,” the report said.
On April 10, Iran announced that it started up far more advanced IR-6 and IR-5 centrifuges that enrich uranium more quickly, in a new breach of its undertakings under the 2015 nuclear agreement. It also said it has began mechanical tests on an even faster nuclear centrifuge: The output of Iran’s IR-9 centrifuge, when operational, would be 50 times quicker than the first Iranian centrifuge, the IR-1. Iran’s nuclear program is also developing IR-8 centrifuges.
Early the next morning, the site was hit in the blast that was declared by Iran to be Israeli sabotage. The explosion is said to have caused considerable damage to the Natanz plant, including its various uranium-enriching centrifuges.
In response to the attack, Iran said it began enriching a small amount of uranium up to 60 percent purity at the site — its highest level ever, and a short step from weapons-grade. The UN atomic agency confirmed the enrichment, saying it was being done in an above-ground facility at Natanz.
The head of the country’s atomic agency said Tuesday that power has been restored at Natanz and uranium enrichment activities there have been renewed. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, was cited by the official IRNA news agency as saying that “the cables damaged in the accident were speedily replaced and… the main power supply to the Natanz enrichment facility [is] now connected to the grid.”
Salehi told lawmakers during a parliamentary committee meeting that “thanks to the timely measures taken, enrichment in Natanz never stopped, even when the main power cable was cut,” according to the report.
He also reportedly said that Iran’s enemies, among them Israel, have repeatedly attempted to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, but claimed all the plots were foiled.
Iranian officials have blamed Israel for the April 11 attack at Natanz.
The report did not include any images of the enrichment activities that Salehi said had resumed.
His comments came as a New York Times report said Iran’s nuclear enrichment program at Natanz has slowed down due to increased security measures implemented following the recent blast.
Despite the reported damage, Iranian state TV aired footage earlier this week from what it said were regular operations at Natanz. The spot included a short interview with an unnamed worker at the site who said that the staff was working around the clock to resume uranium enrichment.
Israeli and American media have reported that a 150-kilogram bomb took out Natanz’s main and backup power supplies and caused damage setting back the enrichment process by months.
A senior Iranian official said last Tuesday that the blast destroyed or damaged thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Alireza Zakani, the hardline head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.
The blast was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding aboveground workshops and underground enrichment halls, but Iranian officials later began calling it an attack.
Last Monday, an Iranian official acknowledged that the blast took out the plant’s main electrical power system and its backup. “From a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful,” Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee, told Iranian state television.
“They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”
The New York Times reported that the blast was caused by a bomb that was smuggled into the plant and then detonated remotely. The report cited an unnamed intelligence official, without specifying whether they were American or Israeli. The official also noted that the blast took out Natanz’s primary electrical system as well as its backup.
On Saturday, Iran state television named 43-year-old Reza Karimi as a suspect in last week’s attack, saying he had since fled the country. The report showed a passport-style photograph of a man it identified as Karimi, saying he was born in the nearby city of Kashan, Iran.
The Iranian foreign ministry accused Israel of an act of “nuclear terrorism” and vowed revenge.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement, but public radio reports said it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency, citing unnamed intelligence sources. The New York Times, quoting unnamed US and Israeli intelligence officials, also said there had been “an Israeli role” in the attack.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, last week indirectly accused Israel of attempting to scuttle talks underway in Vienna aimed at reviving a landmark nuclear agreement. The talks are focused on bringing the US back into the accord after former US president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, and to bring Iran back into compliance with key nuclear commitments it suspended in response to the sanctions.