Iran to Begin Building of Underground Nuclear Site

Published October 29th, 2020 - 09:00 GMT
Iran to Begin Building of Underground Nuclear Site
​​​​​​​Iran also continues to stockpile greater amounts of low-enriched uranium, but does not appear to possess enough to produce a weapon, Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the AP news agency. (Shutterstock)
Highlights
Tehran has begun construction at its Natanz nuclear facility, satellite images released Wednesday have shown.
Inspectors from the UN’s atomic watchdog have confirmed Iran has started building an underground centrifuge assembly plant after its previous one exploded in what Tehran called a sabotage attack over the summer.


Iran also continues to stockpile greater amounts of low-enriched uranium, but does not appear to possess enough to produce a weapon, Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the AP news agency.

Iran has begun construction at its Natanz nuclear facility, satellite images released Wednesday have also shown.

Since August, Iran has built a new or upgraded a road to the south of Natanz toward what analysts believe is a former firing range for security forces at the enrichment facility, images from San Francisco-based Planet Labs show. A satellite image Monday shows the site cleared away with what appears to be construction equipment there.

Analysts from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies say they believe that site is undergoing excavation.

“That road also goes into the mountains so it may be the fact that they’re digging some kind of structure that’s going to be out in front and that there’s going to be a tunnel in the mountains,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the institute who studies Iran’s nuclear programme. “Or maybe that they’re just going to bury it there.”

Following the July explosion at the Natanz nuclear site, Tehran said it would build a new, more secure, structure in the mountains around the area. Satellite pictures of Natanz analysed by experts have yet to show any obvious signs of excavation at the site in Iran’s central Isfahan province.

“They have started, but it’s not completed,” Grossi said. “It’s a long process.”

He would not give further details, saying it’s “confidential information.”

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear department, last month told state television the destroyed above-ground facility was being replaced with one “in the heart of the mountains around Natanz.”

Natanz hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. In its long underground halls, centrifuges rapidly spin uranium hexafluoride gas to enrich uranium.

Natanz became a flashpoint for Western fears about Iran’s nuclear programme in 2002, when satellite photos showed Iran building an underground facility at the site, some 200 kilometres south of the capital, Tehran. In 2003, the IAEA visited Natanz, which Iran said would house centrifuges for its nuclear programme, buried under some 7.6 meters of concrete. That offers protection from potential airstrikes on the site, which also is guarded by anti-aircraft positions.

Exceeding limits

Natanz had been targeted by the Stuxnet computer virus previously, which was believed to be a creation of the US and Israel. Iran has yet to say who it suspects of carrying out the sabotage in the July incident. Suspicion has fallen on Israel as well, despite a claim of responsibility by a previously unheard-of group at the time.

Under the provisions of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran is allowed to produce a certain amount of enriched uranium for non-military purposes.

Since US President Donald Trump pulled the US unilaterally out of the deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, however, the other signatories — Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China — have been struggling to keep the deal alive.

Meanwhile, Iran has been steadily exceeding the deal’s limits on how much uranium it can stockpile, the purity to which it can enrich uranium and other restrictions to pressure those countries to come up with a plan to offset US sanctions.

Still though, Iran has continued to allow IAEA inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities, including Natanz, Grossi said.

Satellite image from Planet Labs Inc shows construction at Iran’s Natanz uranium-enrichment facility that experts believe may be a new underground centrifuge assembly plant. (AP)

In the latest IAEA quarterly report, the agency reported Iran as of August 25 had stockpiled 2,105.4 kilograms (4,641.6 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, well above the 202.8 kilograms (447.1 pounds) allowed under the JCPOA. It was also enriching uranium to a purity of 4.5%, higher than the 3.67% allowed under the deal.

In the next report, due in coming weeks, Grossi said: “We continue to see the same trend that we have seen so far.”

According to a widely cited analysis by the Washington-based Arms Control Association, Iran would need roughly 1,050 kilograms (1.16 tons) of low-enriched uranium — under 5% purity — in gas form and would then need to enrich it further to weapons-grade, or more than 90% purity, to make a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA’s current assessment is, however, that Iran does not at the moment possess a “significant quantity” of uranium — defined by the agency as enough to produce a bomb — according to Grossi.


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