Iranian authorities revealed on Sunday that the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility sustained “significant damage” when a fire broke out there last Thursday. The incident was one of the most striking in a series of mysterious fires to have hit Iran’s nuclear and power facilities over the past month. These incidents should worry Iran’s neighbors and its nuclear deal partners alike.
The Natanz facility in Isfahan province is believed to be one of the most important nuclear sites in Iran. It houses a centrifuge assembly workshop.
Centrifuges are needed to produce enriched uranium, which can be used to make reactor fuel and also nuclear weapons. An Atomic Energy Organization of Iran spokesman admitted that the incident “could slow down the development and production of advanced centrifuges in the medium term.” But he added that Iran would be able to “replace the damaged building with a bigger one that has more advanced equipment.” In 2010, the Natanz site was also temporarily paralyzed by a cyberattack.
Iran has kept quiet about the cause of Thursday’s fire, but there is already rampant speculation about who could be behind it. A previously unknown group calling itself “Cheetahs of the Homeland” has claimed responsibility for the incident, but its claim has not been verified.
Just a week before the Natanz fire, another suspicious incident took place at Parchin, about 25 kilometers from Tehran — another site where nuclear activity and missile production have been reported previously. Parchin was hit twice before, in 2007 and 2014. Two people died in the 2014 incident.
On June 26, Parchin was hit by a powerful explosion. An Iranian military spokesman downplayed the incident, attributing it to a “gas leak.” However, the Associated Press released satellite images showing signs of a vast blackened area in the hills adjacent to the Parchin facility and the cruise missile factory at Khojir missile base — evidence of the explosion and fire that lit up the night sky in Tehran. The New York Times reported that the blast actually occurred at Khojir rather than Parchin, but they could have been two separate incidents.
On Saturday, two days after the fire at the Natanz nuclear site, a large fire was reported in Ahvaz in southwestern Iran. This was caused by a “distribution transformer explosion,” according to firefighters. The fire apparently spread to the Zargan nuclear plant, just 5 kilometers from Ahvaz, a city of 1.5 million people.
These recurring incidents at Iran’s nuclear facilities underline the fragility of the country’s nuclear installations and its inability to maintain safety at those facilities, regardless of whether they are used for peaceful or military purposes. Iran is the only country in the world operating a nuclear plant without being party to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, the most important international legal instrument governing safety rules at nuclear power plants. This 1994 treaty obliges nations to implement strict safety rules and standards at facilities related to nuclear energy. The International Atomic Energy Agency oversees compliance with this convention. It also monitors Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Other Iranian facilities, such as the Bushehr nuclear reactor, are located on earthquake fault lines. In April 2013, there was a close call when a large earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale hit the area. Its epicenter was only about 80 kilometers from Bushehr and it was felt throughout the Gulf, causing concern about possible damage to the reactor, which could have resulted in an environmental disaster. The nuclear plant is located less than 200 kilometers from important population centers in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. If a nuclear incident were to take place at Bushehr, the air in the Gulf and the water used by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries for desalination could be dangerously contaminated, in addition to marine life, as Japan’s Fukushima and Ukraine’s Chernobyl incidents tragically showed.
The GCC has long called for Iran to accede to all international nuclear safety agreements, such as the Convention on Nuclear Safety, and to comply strictly with nuclear safety standards. As we have seen with this past week’s incidents, Iran’s nuclear facilities are vulnerable to attacks from within or without, both cyber and physical. Some of the facilities are showing their age and could self-ignite, while others are located in areas prone to earthquakes. Many are located near large population centers such as Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan, Shiraz and Ahvaz. Some are located near the Gulf, creating the possibility of damage to neighboring countries.
The fires and explosions in Iran’s nuclear facilities should persuade Tehran to join international nuclear safety agreements and accept international inspections. That step could be the beginning of a process of confidence-building with its neighbors.
International actors with close links to Iran should also shoulder their responsibility for nuclear safety. It is a pity that previous nuclear talks did not take safety concerns fully into consideration. Future talks should include an emphasis on nuclear safety, for the benefit of the Iranian people who live next to their country’s nuclear installations and the neighboring countries that live with the threat of contamination from Iran’s decrepit nuclear facilities.