Iran: Satellite Photos Show Construction at Underground Nuclear Site

Iranian students carrying anti-US placards and portraits of the Islamic republic's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei protest outside the Fordo Uranium Conversion Facility in Qom, in the north of the country, on November 19, 2013. Iran said there was "every possibility" of a deal at international talks on its nuclear …
CHAVOSH HOMAVANDI/AFP via Getty Images

Satellite imagery obtained by the Associated Press (AP) on December 18 appears to show Iran has begun construction work at Fordo, a controversial underground nuclear facility in the country’s north.

“Construction on the Fordo site began in late September. Satellite images obtained from Maxar Technologies by the AP show the construction taking place at a northwest corner of the site, near the holy Shiite city of Qom, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran,” the news agency reported Friday.

A satellite photo of the site from December 11 appears to show “a dug foundation for a building with dozens of pillars.” Such pillars are often used to provide buildings with anti-earthquake support.

The construction site is located northwest of Fordo’s underground facility, near the nuclear plant’s above-ground support and research-and-development buildings. Fordo’s underground complex was built inside a nearby mountain to protect it from enemy airstrikes.

Among Fordo’s above-ground buildings is Iran’s National Vacuum Technology Center. “Vacuum technology is a crucial component of Iran’s uranium-gas centrifuges, which enrich uranium,” according to the AP.

A Twitter account called Observer IL published a satellite image of Fordo earlier this week that appears to show the construction site. Observer IL cited South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Research Institute as the photo’s source. The AP reached out to Observer IL, “who identified himself as a retired Israeli Defense Forces soldier with a civil engineering background.” The Korea Aerospace Research Institute later confirmed it captured the satellite photo of Fordo’s new construction site.

When asked by the AP about the Fordo construction site, Iran’s mission to the United Nations said “none of Iran’s nuclear activities are secret,” referring to ongoing inspections of its sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Tehran agreed to stop enriching uranium at Fordo and convert the site into “a nuclear, physics and technology center” under the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Reneging on its promise, Iran resumed enrichment at Fordo in July 2019.

The Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant is heavily fortified and “ringed by anti-aircraft guns,” according to the AP. “It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead U.S. officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.”

Tehran is currently believed to be enriching uranium up to 4.5 percent, in violation of the 3.67 percent limit set under the 2015 JCPOA deal. Iran’s parliament approved a draft bill on December 1 that would require the country to produce “at least 120 kg of 20-percent enriched uranium annually.” The bill would also do away with IAEA inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

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