Electrical problem strikes Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iran‘s Natanz nuclear site suffered a problem Sunday involving its electrical distribution grid just hours after starting up new advanced centrifuges that more quickly enrich uranium, state TV reported. It was the latest incident to strike one of Tehran‘s most secure sites amid negotiations over the tattered atomic accord with world powers.

Power had been cut across the facility of above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls, civilian nuclear program spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi told Iranian state television.

“Here the power has been cut off indeed, and we do not know the reason for the outage,” he said. “The incident is under investigation and we will inform you about the reason as we find out.”

The word state television used in its reports attributed to Kamalvandi in Farsi also can be used for “accident.”

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran‘s program, said it was “aware of the media reports,” but declined to comment.

Malek Shariati Niasar, a lawmaker who serves as spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s energy committee, wrote on Twitter that the incident was “very suspicious,” raising concerns about possible “sabotage and infiltration.” He said lawmakers were pursuing details of the incident as well.

Natanz, a facility earlier targeted by the Stuxnet computer virus, was largely built underground to withstand enemy airstrikes. It became a flashpoint for Western fears about Iran’s nuclear program in 2002, when satellite photos showed Iran building its underground centrifuges facility at the site, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Tehran.

Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain.

Israel, Iran‘s regional archenemy, has been suspected of carrying out an attack there, as well as launching other assaults, as world powers now negotiate with Tehran in Vienna over its nuclear deal.

Iran also blamed Israel for the killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier. Israel has not claimed any of the attacks, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly has described Iran as the major threat faced by his country in recent weeks.

Israeli officials could not be immediately reached for comment. However, in a speech Sunday, the Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, appeared to reference Iran.

The Israeli military’s “operations in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy,” Kochavi said. “They are watching us, seeing (our) abilities and weighing their steps with caution.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also landed in Israel on Sunday for talks with Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

In Tehran, Iranian officials meanwhile awaited the arrival of South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, the first visit by a premier from Seoul since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran on Friday released a South Korean oil tanker held since January amid a dispute with Seoul over billions of dollars of its assets frozen there.

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

On Saturday, Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant. Officials also began testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran‘s first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.

Since then-President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has abandoned all the limits of its uranium stockpile. It now enriches up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran maintains its atomic program is for peaceful purposes, but fears about Tehran having the ability to make a bomb saw world powers reach the deal with the Islamic Republic in 2015.

The deal lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for it limiting its program and allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to keep a close watch on its work.

On Tuesday, an Iranian cargo ship said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen was struck by an explosion, likely from a limpet mine. Iran has blamed Israel for the blast. That attack escalated a long-running shadow war in Mideast waterways targeting shipping in the region.

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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