IAEA: Iran enriching uranium to 60% at aboveground facility at Natanz

UN watchdog confirms Iranian claim of enriching to near weapons-grade level; underground enrichment at plant that was hit by bomb last week

Footage of the Natanz nuclear facility aired by Iranian state TV on April 17, 2021. (Screen capture/Twitter)
Footage of the Natanz nuclear facility aired by Iranian state TV on April 17, 2021. (Screen capture/Twitter)

Iran has started the process of enriching uranium to 60 percent fissile purity at an “aboveground facility” at its Natanz nuclear enrichment plant, the UN nuclear watchdog said on Saturday, confirming earlier announcements made by Iranian officials.

“The Agency today verified that Iran had begun the production of UF6 enriched up to 60% U-235 by feeding UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235 simultaneously into two cascades of IR-4 centrifuges and IR-6 centrifuges at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant,” the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement to the Reuters news agency.

Reuters also cited an internal IAEA report further elaborating on the process.

“According to Iran’s declaration to the Agency, the enrichment level of the UF6 produced at PFEP was 55.3% U-235. The Agency took a sample of the produced UF6 for destructive analysis to independently verify the enrichment level declared by Iran. The results of this analysis will be reported by the Agency in due course,” the report said.

A bomb early on April 11 blew up the main and backup power supply to the underground enrichment facility at Natanz. It caused damage to various kinds of the 6,000 centrifuges there and set back enrichment for six to nine months, according to Israeli and American reports.

In response to the attack,  which it blames on Israel, Iran announced it had begun 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.

Footage of the Natanz nuclear facility aired by Iranian state TV on April 17, 2021. (Screen capture/Twitter)

Earlier Saturday, Iranian state TV aired footage from what it said were regular operations at the underground facility at Natanz.

The TV spot aired a short interview with an unnamed worker at the site who said that the staff was working around the clock to resume uranium enrichment.

“What you hear is the noise of the machines working normally. We are fixing all the centrifuges that have been affected, and with the help of our dedicated, excellent staff, we are working to fix all the damaged parts,” said the worker.

It was unclear when the footage was filmed.

Israeli and American media have reported that a 150-kilogram bomb early Sunday morning took out Natanz’s main and backup power supplies and caused damage setting back the enrichment process by months.

A senior Iranian official said 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.

Earlier 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 report also aired what appeared to be an Interpol “red notice” seeking his arrest. The arrest notice was not immediately accessible on Interpol’s public-facing database. Interpol, based in Lyon, France, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A photo aired by Iranian state television shows Reza Karimi in an Interpol-style ‘wanted’ poster. Tehran says Karimi was behind the sabotage at Natanz on April 11 that it has blamed on Israel (video screenshot)

The TV report said “necessary actions” were underway to bring Karimi back to Iran through legal channels, without elaborating. The supposed Interpol “red notice” listed his travel history as including Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Ethiopia, Qatar, Turkey, Uganda, Romania and another country that was illegible.

On Saturday night, the same state media said that Karimi may not have acted alone.

The report did not elaborate on how Karimi or others would have gotten access to one of the most secure facilities in the Islamic Republic and Israeli analysts have questioned Iran’s claim to have found a suspect.

Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran at the Institute for National Security Studies, urged taking the reports with a grain of salt.

“There is no doubt that some of the reason behind the report is to address internal criticism regarding security malfunctions that enabled the sabotage of Natanz,” Zimmt told Army Radio.

Ershad Karimi, a contractor named by Iranian media as responsible for a July 2, 2020, blast at the Natanz nuclear site. (Twitter)

Last year, following another blast at the Natanz site that was also attributed to Israel, Iran named another Karimi as a suspect — Ershad Karimi, a contractor at the nuclear facility who owns a company, MEHR, that supplies precision measuring equipment.

According to Israel’s Channel 13, which also suggested skepticism over the new reports of a suspect, Ershad Karimi was never found.

The April 11 attack at Natanz 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.

On 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 on Monday.

“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. This official also noted that the blast took out Natanz’s primary electrical system as well as its backup.

Natanz, in Iran’s central Isfahan province, hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. (AP)

The report said that Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization spokesman, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said the explosion inside the bunker had created a hole so big that he fell into it when trying to examine the damage, injuring his head, back, leg and arm.

Channel 13’s military analyst, Alon Ben-David, said Saturday that claims by former prime minister Ehud Olmert that the bomb was likely placed there more than a decade ago, waiting for the right time to be detonated, were “credible.”

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