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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.

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Increased Safeguards at Natanz: What Does It All Mean?

by Ivanka Barzashka and Ivan Oelrich

A much anticipated IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear activities was leaked today.  The report indicates that, among other things, Iran has conceded to additional safeguard at Natanz.  This is a welcome development but occurring amidst a contested Iranian election, European threats of increased sanctions, continuing oblique hints of Israeli military action, and US talk of cutting off Iranian gasoline imports if nuclear talks are rejected.  How important are these increased safeguards? Do they represent a change of course for Iran? Continue Reading →

Iran’s Fuel Fabrication: Step closer to energy independence or a bomb?

By Ivanka Barzashka and Ivan Oelrich

Yesterday, on Iran’s national Nuclear Technology Day, President Ahmadinejad announced the country’s latest nuclear advances, which seem to have become an important source of national pride and international rancor. April 9 marks the day when Iran claimed to have enriched its first batch of uranium in 2006. Yesterday, Ahmadinejad inaugurated Iran’s Fuel Manufacturing Plant (FMP) at Isfahan and announced the installation of a new “more accurate” type of centrifuge at the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz.

A fuel fabrication facility, the last element of the front-end fuel cycle, is where nuclear reactor fuel is made. For light water reactors (LWR), such as the one in Bushehr, uranium is mined, turned into yellow cake, and converted to uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the UF6 is enriched using centrifuges, converted into uranium oxide pellets, and made into fuel rods, which go into the reactor core. For pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWR), such as the one in Arak, uranium doesn’t need to be enriched, so the yellow cake is directly converted to uranium oxide pellets. Continue Reading →

Iran’s Uranium: Don’t Panic Yet.

By Ivan Oelrich and Ivanka Barzashka

Last week, the New York Times and the Financial Times USA ran stories that implied that Iran had been hiding enriched uranium and had been caught red-handed during the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) physical inventory inspection. While supposedly based on the IAEA report (GOV/2009/8), the articles more closely followed the ISIS analysis of the report.  [Jeffery Lewis, as usual, also has good analysis and comments on Arms Control Wonk.] The IAEA report itself raises few alarm bells. Yes, the Iranians are continuing to enrich uranium; yes, they claim it is exclusively for a civilian nuclear reactor program, a claim for which no one can provide credible assurances, and, yes, every day they enrich uranium, they are closer to having enough for nuclear weapon capability, once that political decision is made. But the IAEA report does not reveal any sudden jump in enrichment capability or even uranium inventory and it goes out of its way to say that the result of the inspection is consistent with what was previously declared by Iran, within “the measurement uncertainties normally associated with enrichment plants of similar throughput”. So what is the issue here?

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White House Guidance Led to New Nuclear Strike Plans Against Proliferators, Document Shows


The U.S. nuclear war plan that entered into effect in March 2003 included new executable strike options against regional states seeking weapons of mass destruction.
(click on image to download PDF-version)

By Hans M. Kristensen

The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and White House guidance issued in response to the terrorist attacks against the United States in September 2001 led to the creation of new nuclear strike options against regional states seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction, according to a military planning document obtained by the Federation of American Scientists.

Rumors about such options have existed for years, but the document is the first authoritative evidence that fear of weapons of mass destruction attacks from outside Russia and China caused the Bush administration to broaden U.S. nuclear targeting policy by ordering the military to prepare a series of new options for nuclear strikes against regional proliferators.

Responding to nuclear weapons planning guidance issued by the White House shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, U.S. Strategic Command created a series of scenario driven nuclear strike options against regional states. Illustrations in the document identify the states as North Korea and Libya as well as SCUD-equipped countries that appear to include Iran, Iraq (at the time), and Syria – the very countries mentioned in the NPR. The new strike options were incorporated into the strategic nuclear war plan that entered into effect on March 1, 2003.

The creation of the new strike options contradict statements by government officials who have insisted that the NPR did not change U.S. nuclear policy but decreased the role of nuclear weapons.
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Questions about Iranian Weapons in Iraq

At an unusual press briefing on Monday, U.S. military officials provided the first physical evidence of Iranian arms shipments to Iraqi extremist groups. The display, which the New York Times called “extraordinary,” consisted of explosively formed penetrators, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile reportedly found in Iraq and bearing Iranian markings. Notably, the officials also claimed to have proof that the operation was being directed by “the highest levels of the Iranian government,” a claim that was rigorously denied by Tehran.

The briefing raised more questions than it answered. Topping the list are questions about the extent of the Iranian government’s involvement in the arms shipments. Defense Department officials reportedly provided little proof for their claims of high-level involvement by the Iranian government, and the next day General Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chief of staff, appeared to contradict them. Commenting on the captured weaponry, Pace conceded that the weapons “[do] not translate to that the Iranian government per se, for sure, is directly involved in doing this.” Yesterday President Bush sided with General Pace, confirming that “we don’t…know whether the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds force to do what they did.”

The captured weapons themselves are also puzzling. Not only were they reportedly manufactured in Iran, they are also emblazoned with manufacture dates and lot numbers – hardly indicative of a government that wants to maintain “plausible deniability.” Architects of covert aid programs usually go to great lengths to conceal their government’s involvement by purchasing weapons from foreign suppliers and clandestinely shipping them through third countries. The Iranians apparently did neither. Why?
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Somalia: Don’t Forget about the Missiles….

With the war against Islamist fighters drawing to a close, Somalia’s transitional government and its foreign allies now face several Herculean tasks: bringing to heel the warlords and militias that have terrorized the country for fifteen years, winning over the various clans and sub-clans that dominate Somali politics, rebuilding the nation’s devastated infrastructure, etc, etc, etc.

In the interest of international security, I would add one more: recovering the dozens of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles reportedly distributed to the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), and sanctioning the suppliers.
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Arms to Somalia: Déjà vu

The latest report from the UN group that monitors the arms embargo on Somalia has caused quite a stir, generating extensive news coverage and eliciting vehement denials from governments accused of violating the embargo. But, as underscored by declassified US intelligence documents from the 1990s, such disregard for the embargo is nothing new.

The documents, which were obtained by the FAS under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal a disheartening similarity between sanctions-busting in the mid-1990’s and sanctions-busting now. From the countries involved to the weapons shipped, little appears to have changed over the last decade.
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