The Qom Uranium Enrichment Facility – What and How Do We Know?

On Friday, President Obama, President Sarkozy, and Prime Minister Brown revealed  a covert Iranian uranium enrichment facility near Qom. Obama announced that “the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful nuclear program.” In a briefing , Senior White House Administration Officials clarified that the facility is designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuges. Although, this number is not large enough to “make sense from any commercial standpoint, […] enough for a bomb or two a year, it’s the right size.”
It is too early to independently verify the US statement that Iran is planning on setting up 3,000 centrifuges at Qom. The IAEA has confirmed  that it has received a letter from the Iranian government announcing the facility. The letter affirms that Iran will provide more information as appropriate. Iran claims that it is not bound by the revised Code 3.1 of its Subsidiary Arrangement with the IAEA and, therefore, they need to announce new facilities only 180 days before nuclear material enters the site and material will not be introduced for at least 6 months as of last Monday, when Iran sent the letter to the IAEA. In an interview with CNN’s Larry King Live, President Ahmadinejad explained  that they have informed the agency a year before they were obligated to and Iran’s Atomic Energy head, Ali Akbar Salehi has said  that no nuclear material has entered the facility yet. Iran claims  that no machines have been installed.
However, some press reports  state that the facility is “within a few months of being completed”. The good news here is that Iran has publically announced the facility (although it is unclear whether it decided to do so only because the cat was already out of the bag) and has said  that it would comply fully with the IAEA (although Iran and the IAEA do not agree what those obligations are).
ISIS recently published satellite images of possible locations of the Qom enrichment plant. Unfortunately, as cool as satellite photos are, they only show tunnel entrances in a mountain. We have found many of those around that area, playing around on Google Earth. Moreover, the locations are simply guesses based on information that has been disseminated by the media. We cannot tell much about the number and type of centrifuges that will be installed at Qom from the ISIS satellite imagery. White House Administration Officials have admitted  that “we’ll have to wait for the IAEA to get inside there and to report back.”
3,000 Centrifuges at Qom – How Do We Know?
How could the Administration know that Iran is installing 3,000 machines? One way would be to compare the area of the Qom facility to that of the enrichment plant at Natanz. Centrifuges take a certain amount of floor space and if we knew the average area per cascade, we could approximate how many machines can fit in a given space. As FAS’ Acting President, Ivan Oelrich points out, you can come up with an estimate for the size of the facility based on the amount of rock that the Iranians are throwing out (if they are digging a hole in a mountain, they have to dispose of the material somewhere). Geoffrey Forden has an example  of what such an analysis could look like. He reached the conclusion that the amount of rock is consistent with the Administration’s statement. Unfortunately, this involves a lot of assumptions and as Forden puts it, “doesn’t prove anything”.
You can also tell something about the size of the tunnel if you knew how much explosive was used to blast the hole. We can also consider the power lines that are going inside the facility and estimate the energy consumption that they are meant for. Perhaps the US has someone working on the inside or has intercepted communications saying, “Send 3,000 centrifuges to Qom.” However, there is no way to know that a particular tunnel will be used to house centrifuges until we have more information provided by other sources. The White House admitted that at early stages of construction, such a facility can have multiple uses and this is in partly why they chose to wait until they had enough evidence to make a compelling argument to the IAEA. Still, outsiders cannot independently verify this information.
What Type of Machines?
If we accept the 3,000 number as true, we also have no way of knowing what type of centrifuge Iran will install at Qom. Other than the IR-1 currently operational at Natanz, Iran has been testing 4 other types
of machines: IR-2, IR-2m, IR-3 and IR-4. It is foreseeable that Iran could wait until one of the more advanced machines is ready for mass production and install those instead. Since carbon fiber models are known to have at least twice the separative capacity relative to aluminum alloy ones, newer models are expected to have a much better performance that the current IR-1 setup at Natanz. The type of machine used would greatly change what they can be done with a set up of 3,000 machines.
Iran may be preparing for the set up of one of the newer centrifuge models. After the last IAEA report  on Iran came out in August 2009, there were statements  in the press that Iran was slowing its expansion of uranium enrichment at Natanz. As it turned out, Iran had decreased the number of operational centrifuges but continued to install new machines and run centrifuges in vacuum. Although some speculated that this may mean that Iran is running out of UF6 or centrifuge parts, a slowdown in the rate of set up of new machines may mean that Iran is preparing for a new centrifuge model. If Iran is close to developing a reliable, higher performance machine, it may prove more economic to wait or slow down setting up IR-1s. So, it is definitely possible that by the time Qom is fully piped and electrified, a new type of centrifuge will be ready for installation.
What Can Be Done with 3,000 Machines?
The size of a facility does not determine whether it can or cannot produce weapons-grade, or highly-enriched, uranium (HEU). Both enrichment to a low degree for a nuclear reactor and to a high degree
for a nuclear weapon are done by gas centrifuges, in fact, potentially exactly the same machines.
One way to tell whether a cascade of centrifuges is used for LEU or HEU production is to look at the  configuration of the machines, or how they are piped together. The set up and piping of the cascade will be different if they are enriching natural uranium to low-enriched uranium (LEU) when compared to natural uranium to HEU. However, they always have the option of using a LEU production set up and simply running the material through several times until they get HEU.
Aside from what is possible in theory, certain things make economic sense and others don’t. To enrich enough LEU for an average 1000 MWe reactor, you need 135,600 kg-SWU/yr. If the 3,000 machines are IR-1s with a separative capacity of 0.5 kg SWU/yr, it would take them about 90 years to get one year’s fuel load. This of course makes no sense. However, if they want to get one bomb’s worth of HEU (from natural uranium), they need 6,320 kg SWU/yr and this would take you a little over 4 years. All of these examples can be worked through with FAS’ new and improved uranium enrichment calculator.
The third option is to take LEU from Natanz and enrich it to a bomb’s worth of HEU. This would take about a year, depending on how much material they are willing to waste. So, if they are trying to divert LEU from an existing facility such as the one at Natanz, the numbers add up perfectly (almost too perfectly). However, diversion of nuclear material from the enrichment plant at Natanz or the conversion plant at Isfahan is near impossible to go undetected if the facilities are under IAEA safeguards. Although uranium mines and mills are not under safeguards, so far there is no sign of a clandestine conversion plant in Iran. There is always the option that the Iranians could just kick the inspectors out and have breakout in one year or less.
A Pilot Plant
On the other hand, Iran hasn’t claimed that the centrifuge plant at Qom is an industrial facility, but a “semi-industrial-scale plant ” or a “pilot plant”. If they are planning on testing a handful of new machines (like at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz) or having a set up of centrifuges someplace where an Israeli air raid will not have much effect, to retain enrichment capability and rebuild their industry, this may make more sense. They would not need huge amounts of machines to do this. Currently at PFEP, Iran tests its new centrifuge models by running several cascades of 10 or 20 machines at a time.
Recently , Iran proposed to buy 19.75 percent enriched uranium from the US for medical purposes. According to the IAEA, uranium with about 20 percent enrichment is considered HEU, although it is not of weapons-grade. If the US declines the offer (which it most probably will), Iran could use this as an excuse to make its own medical grade material at the new facility.
According to unclassified US document s released by ISIS, although the Qom plant is reportedly located on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Base, it is managed by the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran.
Conclusion
So, is the “size and configuration” of the plant inconsistent with a peaceful nuclear facility? Not entirely.  While the circumstantial evidence raises suspicions, based on available evidence, we cannot currently prove it is a military facility.   First, we have no way to confirming the Administration’s statement that Iran will set up 3,000 centrifuges at Qom until the IAEA receives and verifies design information of the facility.  Even if the intelligence were correct, Iran could have changed its plans since the existence of the facility became public, especially if no machines have been set up yet. The 3,000 announced centrifuges by the US are definitely not enough for industrial-scale production of LEU for nuclear reactor fuel. This doesn’t automatically mean that the facility was meant for bomb production, especially if there are no machines installed yet. We don’t know how the plant is configured since, again, no machines have been installed. And, again, this will not be known until inspectors are on the ground.
The location of the facility in a protected and heavily disguised location certainly isn’t helping Iran’s peaceful nuclear program claim. Although repeated Israeli threats of an attack may have developed circumstances for Iranian nuclear safety concerns, this does add to Iran’s track record of ambiguous behavior.
Since the technology to enrich uranium to a small degree for nuclear fuel and to a large degree for nuclear bombs is the same, ultimately the question falls on proving Iran’s intent. Senator Feinsten, the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said  that Iran’s “intention to produce weapons-grade uranium in the Qom facility has not yet been proven.” If Iran is developing a peaceful program, then it should assuage concerns by adopting further transparency measures, like implementing the revised Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements and ratifying the Additional Protocol. On the bright side, US intelligence was good enough to be able to detect a covert nuclear facility. And Iran’s letting inspectors in at Qom is good news.

By Ivanka Barzashka

On Friday, President Obama, President Sarkozy, and Prime Minister Brown revealed a covert Iranian uranium enrichment facility near Qom. Obama announced that “the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful nuclear program.” In a briefing , Senior White House Administration Officials clarified that the facility is designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuges. Although, this number is not large enough to “make sense from any commercial standpoint, […] enough for a bomb or two a year, it’s the right size.”

It is too early to independently verify the US statement that Iran is planning on setting up 3,000 centrifuges at Qom until the IAEA receives and confirms design plans of the facility. Although the circumstantial evidence certainly isn’t helping Iran’s peaceful nuclear energy claim, we cannot definitively conclude that the enrichment plant has a military function. Senator Feinsten, the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said that Iran’s “intention to produce weapons-grade uranium in the Qom facility has not yet been proven,” although there are strong indications.

The IAEA has confirmed that it has received a letter from the Iranian government announcing the facility. The letter affirms that Iran will provide more information as appropriate. Iran claims that it is not bound by the revised Code 3.1 of its Subsidiary Arrangement with the IAEA and, therefore, they need to announce new facilities only 180 days before nuclear material enters the site and material will not be introduced for at least 6 months as of last Monday, when Iran sent the letter to the IAEA. In an interview with CNN’s Larry King Live, President Ahmadinejad explained that they have informed the agency a year before they were obligated to and Iran’s Atomic Energy head, Ali Akbar Salehi has said that no nuclear material has entered the facility yet. Iran claims that no machines have been installed.

However, some press reports state that the facility is “within a few months of being completed”. The good news here is that Iran has publically announced the facility (although it is unclear whether it decided to do so only because the cat was already out of the bag) and has said that it would comply with IAEA inspections.

ISIS recently published satellite images of possible locations of the Qom enrichment plant. Unfortunately, as cool as satellite photos are, they only show tunnel entrances in a mountain. We have found many of those around that area, playing around on Google Earth. Moreover, the locations are simply guesses based on information that has been disseminated by the media. We cannot tell much about the number and type of centrifuges that will be installed at Qom from the ISIS satellite imagery. White House Administration Officials have admitted that “we’ll have to wait for the IAEA to get inside there and to report back.”

How Many Centrifuges at Qom?

How could the Administration know that Iran is installing 3,000 machines? One way would be to compare the area of the Qom facility to that of the enrichment plant at Natanz. Centrifuges take a certain amount of floor space and if we knew the average area per cascade, we could approximate how many machines can fit in a given space. As FAS’ Acting President, Ivan Oelrich points out, you can come up with an estimate for the size of the facility based on the amount of rock that the Iranians are throwing out (if they are digging a hole in a mountain, they have to dispose of the material somewhere). Geoffrey Forden has an example of what such an analysis could look like. He reached the conclusion that the amount of rock is consistent with the Administration’s statement. Unfortunately, this involves a lot of assumptions and as Forden puts it, “doesn’t prove anything”.

You can also tell something about the size of the tunnel if you knew how much explosive was used to blast the hole. We can also consider the power lines that are going inside the facility and estimate the energy consumption that they are meant for. Perhaps the US has someone working on the inside or has intercepted communications saying, “Send 3,000 centrifuges to Qom.” However, there is no way to know that a particular tunnel will be used to house centrifuges until we have more information provided by other sources. The White House admitted that at early stages of construction, such a facility can have multiple uses and this is in partly why they chose to wait until they had enough evidence to make a compelling argument to the IAEA. Still, outsiders cannot independently verify this information.

What Type of Machines?

Even if we accept the 3,000 number as true, we also have no way of knowing what type of centrifuge Iran will install at Qom. Other than the IR-1 currently operational at Natanz, Iran has been testing 4 other types of machines: IR-2, IR-2m, IR-3 and IR-4. It is foreseeable that Iran could wait until one of the more advanced machines is ready for mass production and install those instead. Since carbon fiber models are known to have at least twice the separative capacity relative to aluminum alloy ones, newer models are expected to have a much better performance that the current IR-1 setup at Natanz. The type of machine used would greatly change what they can be done with a set up of 3,000 machines.

Iran may be preparing for the set up of one of the newer centrifuge models. After the last IAEA report on Iran came out in August 2009, there were statements in the press that Iran was slowing its expansion of uranium enrichment at Natanz. As it turned out, Iran had decreased the number of operational centrifuges but continued to install new machines and run centrifuges in vacuum. Although some speculated that this may mean that Iran is running out of UF6 or centrifuge parts, a slowdown in the rate of set up of new machines may mean that Iran is preparing for a new centrifuge model. If Iran is close to developing a reliable, higher performance machine, it may prove more economic to wait or slow down setting up IR-1s. So, it is definitely possible that by the time Qom is fully piped and electrified, a new type of centrifuge will be ready for installation.

What Can Be Done with 3,000 Machines?

The size of a facility does not determine whether it can or cannot produce weapons-grade, or highly-enriched, uranium (HEU). Both enrichment to a low degree for a nuclear reactor and to a high degree for a nuclear weapon are done by gas centrifuges, in fact, potentially exactly the same machines.

One way to tell whether a cascade of centrifuges is used for LEU or HEU production is to look at the  configuration of the machines, or how they are piped together. The set up and piping of the cascade will be different if they are enriching natural uranium to low-enriched uranium (LEU) when compared to natural uranium to HEU. However, they always have the option of using a LEU production set up and simply running the material through several times until they get HEU.

Aside from what is possible in theory, certain things make economic sense and others don’t. To enrich enough LEU for an average 1000 MWe reactor, you need 135,600 kg-SWU/yr. If the 3,000 machines are IR-1s with a separative capacity of 0.5 kg SWU/yr, it would take them about 90 years to get one year’s fuel load. This of course makes no sense. However, if they want to get one bomb’s worth of HEU (from natural uranium), they need 6,320 kg SWU/yr and this would take you a little over 4 years. All of these examples can be worked through with FAS’ new and improved uranium enrichment calculator.

The third option is to take LEU from Natanz and enrich it to a bomb’s worth of HEU. This would take about a year, depending on how much material they are willing to waste. So, if they are trying to divert LEU from an existing facility such as the one at Natanz, the numbers add up perfectly (almost too perfectly). However, diversion of nuclear material from the enrichment plant at Natanz or the conversion plant at Isfahan is near impossible to go undetected if the facilities are under IAEA safeguards. Although uranium mines and mills are not under safeguards, so far there is no sign of a clandestine conversion plant in Iran. There is always the option that the Iranians could just kick the inspectors out and have breakout in one year or less.

A Pilot Plant?

On the other hand, Iran hasn’t claimed that the centrifuge plant at Qom is an industrial facility, but a “semi-industrial-scale plant” or a “pilot plant”. If they are planning on testing a handful of new machines (like at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz) or having a set up of centrifuges someplace where an Israeli air raid will not have much effect, to retain enrichment capability and rebuild their industry, this may make more sense. They would not need huge amounts of machines to do this. Currently at PFEP, Iran tests its new centrifuge models by running several cascades of 10 or 20 machines at a time.

Recently, Iran proposed to buy 19.75 percent enriched uranium from the US for medical purposes. According to the IAEA, uranium with about 20 percent enrichment is considered HEU, although it is not of weapons-grade. If the US declines the offer (which it most probably will), Iran could use this as an excuse to make its own medical grade material at the new facility.

According to unclassified US documents released by ISIS, although the Qom plant is reportedly located on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Base, it is managed by the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran.

So, is the “size and configuration” of the Qom plant inconsistent with a peaceful nuclear facility? Not entirely.  While the circumstantial evidence raises suspicions, based on available evidence, we cannot currently prove it is a military facility.   First, we have no way to confirming the Administration’s statement that Iran will set up 3,000 centrifuges at Qom until the IAEA receives and verifies design information of the facility.  Even if the intelligence was correct, Iran could have changed its plans since the existence of the facility became public, especially if no machines have been set up yet. The 3,000 announced centrifuges by the US are definitely not enough for industrial-scale production of LEU for nuclear reactor fuel. However, this doesn’t automatically mean that the facility was meant for bomb production. We don’t know how the plant is configured since, again, no machines have been installed. And, again, this will not be known until inspectors are on the ground.

The facility’s protected and heavily disguised location certainly isn’t helping Iran’s peaceful nuclear program claim. Although repeated Israeli threats of an attack may have developed circumstances for Iranian nuclear safety concerns, this does add to Iran’s track record of ambiguous behavior.

Since the technology to enrich uranium to a small degree for nuclear fuel and to a large degree for nuclear bombs is the same, ultimately the question falls on proving Iran’s intent. The US has admitted that intension to produce HEU has not yet been proven, despite the indications for clandestine activity.  If Iran is developing a peaceful program, then it should assuage concerns by adopting further transparency measures, like implementing the revised Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements and ratifying the Additional Protocol. On the bright side, US intelligence was good enough to be able to detect a covert nuclear facility. And Iran’s letting inspectors in at Qom is good news.

11 Responses to “The Qom Uranium Enrichment Facility – What and How Do We Know?”

  1. Kestas Kuliukas September 29, 2009 at 9:54 am #

    Thanks for the informative article. Does the “90 years” thing mean that Iran would have to massively expand its enrichment capability to generate usable (for power) quantities of LEU? Is it still really a possibility that this is for commercial power, when they could presumably get LEU so much cheaper from countries with existing setups?

    Thanks again, I like it when FAS gives facts and analysis without the preaching.

  2. Scott Monje September 29, 2009 at 2:22 pm #

    “We don’t know how the plant is configured since, again, no machines have been installed. And, again, this will not be known until inspectors are on the ground.”

    Will inspectors on the ground necessarily be able to divine the facility’s purpose? Or, if no machines have been installed, will it just be a big hole in the ground?

  3. Ivanka Barzashka September 29, 2009 at 7:54 pm #

    Kestas, Thank you for your comment. The “90 years” basically means that if it is true that Iran will set up 3,000 machines at Qom, then this facility is most definitely not meant for industrial purposes (meaning to produce enough LEU for a reactor). However, Iran still plans to install over 50,000 centrifuges at Natanz, which are enough to produce a sufficient amount of LEU in a reasonable amount of time, which can realistically be used to as reactor fuel. So, the non-military options for Qom are a pilot/R&D plant.

    A lot of people have brought up the economic argument that it would be cheaper for Iran to buy LEU elsewhere than to produce it. Iran’s rationale is that it has tried that in the past, but Western countries have not kept their part of the bargain. Apparently, Iran owns about 10% of Eurodif, a French enrichment company, but has never received any uranium and it has had a really hard time finishing the construction of the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which Siemens abandoned in the 1970s. That is why Iran decided to acquire centrifuge blue-prints on the black market. Why does an oil country want a nuclear industry? Apparently, Iranian oil reserves will substantially decrease in the next 20 or so years and Iran wants an independent nuclear fuel cycle. And independent nuclear fuel cycle equals energy independence. Note that only 3 countries have the complete fuel cycle, or about 10 percent of the countries possessing nuclear reactors. (It also happens that the same 3 also have nuclear weapons, but that’s not a rule.)

  4. Ivanka Barzashka September 29, 2009 at 8:15 pm #

    Scott,

    Iran has to submit design plans of the Qom facility to the IAEA. These should clearly define the facility’s purpose. The IAEA then goes on site and verifies that what it has received corresponds to what is in the enrichment plant. Then it identifies strategic points in the material flow where it should install cameras and put seals. This is approved by Iran. Design information includes total number of machines, possibly some aspects of cascade arrangement and the maximum enrichment allowed.

    Currently, if there are no machines installed, Qom is probably being electrified and piping is being installed. If there are no operational machines and there is no uranium in the facility, of course inspectors will not have much to verify in terms of material diversion or enrichment degree. But they will check that the floor plans are correct,see where material will be stored etc. When material is actually fed into the cascades, safeguards will proceed like at Natanz, ensuring that no material leaves the facility secretly and that it is not being enriched to HEU levels.

  5. Jim WIntner September 29, 2009 at 10:03 pm #

    I am a newcomer to this discussion via http://www.cryptome.org which posted a link to the above article. I’d like to take this opportunity to find the answer to a simple question: is the US of A subject to the IAEA? Are our nuclear installations inspected by international authorities as are those of Iran and N. Korea?

    Much appreciated,
    Jim

  6. Ivanka Barzashka September 30, 2009 at 9:34 am #

    Jim,

    Although the US is a nuclear weapons state, it is still subject to IAEA safeguards. For example, the US was very active in the creation of the Additional Protocol and its acceptance by other members hinged on US ratification of the document to address the claim that safeguards will not be an economic hindrance. Of course, the US version has a national security exception clause that restricts inspectors from any facility that is deemed of national security importance. So the IAEA inspects US facilities occasionally – not as frequently as the IAEA inspects Iran, but inspections still happen.

  7. evan walters September 30, 2009 at 8:29 pm #

    Given the determined interest by the USA in attacking Iran for the past years, their determined assault/war on Iraq based on a series of lies about WMD and without UN support, it is hard to put any value to this report from US or UK sources.
    The US is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in a war, to destabilze and use black-ops, psy-ops against any country or government interest that has their attention including their own people as was clearly evident with 9/11.
    Iraq was inspected frequently before the US began its war on it. Is this another lead up to a war against Iran using the supposed/real nuclear facilities as the cause?
    How does one credit this report in light of their dedicated and proven past agression against many other countries?

  8. Ivanka Barzashka October 2, 2009 at 11:01 am #

    Evan,

    With military involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is very much reluctant on a military engagement with Iran, which doesn’t meant that the option is completely off the table. Concerns like yours are often brought up regarding intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program submitted by the US, UK and France (for example, Iran’s nuclear weapons work referred to by the IAEA as the “alleged studies”). It is for this reason that Iran’s concent to IAEA inspections of the Qom facility is highly welcomed. Now the Agency can independently verify information that it has recieved.

    However, the US uses the same kind of reasoning against Iran that you have just employed. Considering Iran’s track record on acquiring centrifuge technology on the black market and developing enrichment capabilities covertly, how can Iran be trusted that it’s facilities will not be used in nuclear weapons production?

  9. MarkoB October 5, 2009 at 5:39 am #

    Great analysis; really the best i’ve seen. Just a quick point. Everybody always focuses on “one bomb’s worth” of WgU; but really, should we not be talking about a strategically significant arsenal? Why make a bomb’s worth over 1 year? You would think that Iran would want to test. If so, that mean 0 bombs for actual military use.

    So, really (using the IR-1/P-1) the 4 years should be for a test device. An actual bomb with a tested design sitting inside a warhead should take longer.

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