Explosion at Iran's Natanz nuclear site caused ‘likely irreparable’ damage: Report

The explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site last week has caused “likely irreparable” damage to parts of the site, marking a “significant” setback to Tehran’s aspirations to mass produce advanced centrifuges, according to a report by a US-based think tank.

Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation (AEOI) said last Thursday an accident had taken place at a construction site in the Natanz nuclear site in central Iran without causing casualties.

The damage has dealt a major blow to the Iranian nuclear facility and their ability to mass produce advanced centrifuges, but the authors of the report said the explosion is unlikely to affect Iran’s near-term research and development of centrifuges at the nearby Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant.

Figure 1. The ICAC Building as it appeared in this June 11, 2020 CNES/Airbus satellite image as found on Google Earth. (Screengrab: Institute for Science and International Security report.)

Figure 1. The ICAC Building as it appeared in this June 11, 2020 CNES/Airbus satellite image as found on Google Earth. (Screengrab: Institute for Science and International Security report.)

The Natanz uranium-enrichment site, much of which is underground, is one of several Iranian facilities monitored by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog.

Read more: Explosion at Iran nuclear site hit new centrifuge plant: US-based analysts

High-resolution commercial satellite imagery shows that the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center (ICAC) at Natanz has suffered “significant, extensive, and likely irreparable” damage to its main assembly hall section, a report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said.

“Based on the record of observable evidence provided by commercial satellite imagery, it is now readily discernible that the extent and severity of the structural damage was indeed significant, as Iran now admits,” the report read.

Iran initially downplayed the incident withholding the true extent of the damage, but AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said on Sunday the “accident” caused “significant damage” that could slow the development of advanced centrifuges.

Figure 4. The ICAC Building as it appeared in this June 11, 2020. CNES/Airbus satellite image as found on Google Earth showing the subsequent location of a possible crater and the approximate blast and damage area from the explosion and fire. (Screengrab: Institute for Science and International Security report.)

Figure 4. The ICAC Building as it appeared in this June 11, 2020. CNES/Airbus satellite image as found on Google Earth showing the subsequent location of a possible crater and the approximate blast and damage area from the explosion and fire. (Screengrab: Institute for Science and International Security report.)

Figure 6.  The ICAC Building as it appeared in this July 5, 2020 Planet Labs satellite image as published by CNN and AP, showing the location of a possible crater and the approximate blast and damage area from the explosion and fire. (Screengrab: Institute for Science and International Security report.)

Figure 6. The ICAC Building as it appeared in this July 5, 2020 Planet Labs satellite image as published by CNN and AP, showing the location of a possible crater and the approximate blast and damage area from the explosion and fire. (Screengrab: Institute for Science and International Security report.)

The damage at Natanz appears to have been caused by a “large single-point detonation” according to satellite imagery, the report said.

“That explosion, evidently causing or coinciding with a fire, may well have involved an explosives device,” the report added.

Satellite imagery showed that a “major” explosion took place, destroying nearly three quarters of the main centrifuge assembly hall, the report said.

Read more:

Timeline: A look back at recent explosions and fires across Iran

Two dead, three wounded at factory fire south of Tehran, Iran: IRNA

Unknown group claims responsibility for incident at Natanz nuclear site: BBC Persian

The northwest corner of the ICAC building, including a large portion of a brick-walled annex, was “completely obliterated,” the report said.

“The visible damage is such that the entire building will likely have to be razed and rebuilt from scratch,” the report said.

The incident at Natanz is a “significant” setback for the Iranian advanced gas centrifuge production and operations effort.

“Advanced centrifuge rotor assemblies are typically assembled in “clean rooms,” an expensive-to-build environment free from dust and other contaminants. A 2018 video shows what appear to be clean rooms in this facility; rebuilding these clean rooms will inevitably add to the time and difficulty of replacing this facility,” the authors wrote.

The building’s construction began in 2012 and finished in 2018. Its replacement would take a year at the very least, the report said.

“Although the explosion and fire at the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center does not eliminate Iran’s ability to deploy advanced centrifuges … its destruction must be viewed as a major setback to Iran’s ability to deploy advanced centrifuges on a mass scale for years to come,” the report concluded.

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Last Update: Thursday, 09 July 2020 KSA 15:32 - GMT 12:32
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