Iran is building an underground nuclear facility in Natanz

The Natanz facility, which exploded last July, includes an underground expansion
Iran nuclear

PHOTO/WANA  -   Archival photography. View of the nuclear water reactor in Arak, Iran, on 23 December 2019

The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that Iran began construction of an underground centrifuge assembly plant in Natanz after suffering a fire and several explosions last July. The attack was regarded by Teheran as international sabotage. 

During the IAEA's reconnaissance activities, satellite images have located an underground facility for advanced centrifuges. 

Since August, Iran has been rebuilding the facilities and upgrading a road south of Natanz. The analysts of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies believe that the space of a former firing range inside the enrichment plant is being used, as the images of the company Planet Labs have shown. The satellite image shows a clear place where construction teams seem to be carrying out excavations.

 "That road also goes into the mountains, so it could be that they are digging some kind of structure connected by a tunnel," said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert from the institute who studies the Iranian nuclear programme. The analyst also wanted to stress the possibility that "perhaps they are going to bury the waste there".

Ali Akbar Salehi, director of the IAEA in Iran, said last month on state television that the destroyed facility was being replaced by a new one "in the heart of the mountains around Natanz". The depth of this new installation is not clear at present, and although the mid-summer explosion has delayed the installation of new centrifuges, Lewis warned that the UN programme will continue to accumulate more material and information regardless of the expiry of the Nuclear Agreement.

Rafael Grossi, director general (IAEA), said on Tuesday that the inspectors were aware of the construction. Iran had already informed the agency's inspectors, who continue to have access to its facilities despite the failure of the nuclear pact.

"This assumes that they have begun, but it is not finished. It is a long process," Grossi said. He added that Iran is also accumulating large amounts of low-enriched uranium, but apparently does not possess sufficient quantities to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

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PHOTO / REUTERS  -   Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran technicians in a control room at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan, Iran
The Natanz facility and the end of the nuclear pact

The main Iranian uranium enrichment facility is located in Natanz. In long underground spaces, centrifuges rotate rapidly to enrich uranium with hexafluoride.

Natanz became a focus of Western fears about Iran's nuclear programme in 2002, when satellite photos showed that an underground facility was being built some 200 kilometres south of Tehran. 

In 2003, the IAEA visited Natanz where Iran would house the centrifuges for its nuclear programme, under 7.6 metres of concrete. This protects the site from air attacks. In addition, the site is surrounded by anti-aircraft artillery.

Natanz had previously been attacked with the Stuxnet computer virus, which is believed to have been created by the United States and Israel. Iran has not yet said who it considers to be the suspect of the July sabotage.

According to the 2015 nuclear pact, the United States, China, France, Britain, Russia and Germany agreed to limit Iranian uranium production in exchange for a lifting of all the sanctions imposed by the United Nations, national and other multilateral organisations. Following this decision Iran undertook to make "exclusively peaceful" use of nuclear energy.

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AFP - Negotiation session with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Iran's nuclear programme in Lausanne on 20 March 2015

In 2018 Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement and subsequently intensified the economic sanctions against Iran. As a result, the Islamic republic gradually and publicly abandoned these limits agreed upon in the pact. This led to an escalation of tension that brought the two countries to the brink of war in early 2020.  

Iran now enriches uranium with up to 4.5 percent purity and, according to the latest IAEA report, has a reserve of 2,105 kg (2.32 tons). Experts estimate that 1,050 kilograms (1.15 tonnes) of low-enriched uranium is sufficient material to be re-enriched to weapons grade levels of 90 per cent purity for a nuclear weapon.

It is estimated that the so-called "break-out time", the time required to build a nuclear weapon, has been reduced from one year to three months. Iran claims that its nuclear programme is peaceful, though Western countries fear that Tehran may use it to seek atomic weapons.