Iran cuts number of active centrifuges enriching uranium to 60% — report

The UN atomic agency on Thursday said Iran has slashed by half the number of centrifuges enriching uranium up to 60% purity at the 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 reduced the two clusters of centrifuges enriching uranium at 60% to just one at an aboveground facility.

“On 21 April 2021, the Agency verified that Iran had changed the mode by which it was producing UF6 enriched up to 60% U-235 at PFEP,” the IAEA report said, confirming that Iran was using only one cluster of IR-6 centrifuges to enrich at 60%, while the IR-4 cascades at Natanz are now being used to enrich to up to 20%.

It is unclear how many centrifuges are in each cluster.

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 the 2015 nuclear agreement. It also said it has begun 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.

President Hassan Rouhani, second right, is shown new centrifuges and listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

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 being weapons-grade nuclear material. The UN atomic agency confirmed the enrichment, saying it was being done in an aboveground facility at Natanz.

Head of the US Central Command, Kenneth McKenzie, said Thursday that Iran has “done nothing that is irreversible” — referring to the enrichment increase at Natanz.

The head of Iran’s atomic agency claimed Tuesday that power has been restored at Natanz and uranium enrichment activities there have been renewed. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization, 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.”

This satellite photo provided from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Iran began enriching uranium Friday, April 16, 2021, to its highest level ever at Natanz, edging closer to weapons-grade levels to pressure talks in Vienna aimed at restoring its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on the site. (Planet Labs via AP)

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.

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.

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