Geoff FordenHow Much Dirt?

GoogleEarth image, taken on 25 March 2005, Image of potential site of second Iranian enrichment center near Qom, blinked with ISIS image of the same site taken on 26 September 2009.

As usual, ISIS has produced a wonderful set of image analyses of the possible second enrichment facility near Qom, Iran. ( Here is their second image analysis; both by Paul Brannan.) The image ISIS has indicated as being of the most likely location for the facility is shown above in a blink comparison with a 2005 GoogleEarth image. The blink comparison clearly shows a new pile of dirt to the left of the existing pile (and where did that come from?) What is not clear is the extent of the new pile of dirt. There appears to be two possibilities: 1) a pie shaped distribution of dirt and 2) a ridge of dirt at the extreme radius of the “pie.” Because the surface of the pie wedge has seen considerable traffic, it is very hard to differentiate between these two possibilities (at least for me). It is interesting to try to see if either possibility is consistent with the stated capacity of 3,000 centrifuges.

Using the floor area per centrifuge as determined from the Natanz facility of 1.4 square meters per centrifuge (which includes an average floor area for all the other associated apparatus like autoclaves and refrigerating units for UF6 extraction) and a height of 4 meters to allow centrifuges to be lifted out of their positions, I get a total volume for the facility of 17,290 cubic meters. Not that it matters right now, but if we assume the width of each tunnel section is 10 meters, then this corresponds to a total length of 350 meters. (This will be discussed further in my next post on estimating how long building such a facility might have taken and, hence, when it must have been started.) If this dirt is distributed over the pie wedge, then it should have an average height of 0.04 meters (assuming an expansion factor of 1.4). That does not seem consistent with the end of the “pie,” which appears considerably higher. If, however, the same volume of dirt is piled in a loose berm of dirt with the measured length of 115 meters, it should have a height of about 8 meters. That seems consistent with the stated size of the facility.

By popular demand, here are the two images without the blinking:
GoogleEarth Image

ISIS Image

But I like the blink comparison so that’s why its still up at the top.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    Excellent work. Measuring the volume of dirt in such cases, when said dirt can be found, is always important.

    But I have a different question. The reportage to date says that an air-defense site was built next to the centrifuge facility. So where is that?

    If you look some 600 meters NNE of the middle of the two tunnel adits in the January 2009 image at ISIS, stuff has obviously been added. Including long shadows that look as if they are cast by upright cylinders.

    And then, on top of a hill 700 meters west of that, there’s a new leveling with stuff inside it.

    SAMs and radar?

  2. Behnam (History)

    Iran’s new site is important for its plan to maintain a civilian enrichment program for the 18 or so nuclear reactors it seeks to build. Allow me to explain.

    The plant is being built in a mountain. Unlike the Natanz plant, it is not vulnerable to aerial assault by bunker buster or tactical nuclear bombs. This means that as soon as the site becomes operational, the arguments (and plans?) of those who want to bomb Iran will evaporate into oblivion; for it will prove that bombing achieve its claimed purpose.

    By removing the threat of bombing, the new site accomplishes two things: first, it serves as insurance for Iran’s entire nuclear industry. Second, the removal of the threat translates into considerable political leverage.

    Note that since the site serves as insurance policy, it need not be a full-scale plant. Building something as large as the Natanz plant under a mountain would be prohibitively expensive. There’s an optimization problem here: the site has to be large enough to convince everybody that bombing cannot stop enrichment; but given the huge expense of building a plant under a mountain, the site should not be any larger than that. That explains the size of the plant.

    * * *

    In trying to understand where the Iranians are coming from, you should take note of an important fact. In the last six years, not a week has gone by without an article appearing in some Western newspaper about possible plans for an American or Israeli strike on Iran. Iran believes that if the US and Israel think that they can severely set back Iran’s program, they will launch an attack. They are also weary of being blackmailed: the threat of force gives the US leverage on a number of political questions.

    If anything, I think Iran has been too slow in building an indestructible plant. We’re hearing about this site a full six years after the threats of bombing began.

    PS I posted a version of this comment before, but it didn’t appear.

  3. Geoff Forden (History)

    Lets be clear about Iran’s enrichment capacity: their 50,000 centrifuge hall at Natanz, when it is finished, will be able to sustain 1 maybe 2 reactors. A 3,000 centrifuge hall contributes nothing toward that.

    I would guess that you pressed preview but not submit on your earlier post. (I didn’t receive a first post from you.) Of course, even if you did press submit, comments wont be displayed until I actually have the time to see them. I just happen to be sitting here thinking about concrete setting times by my computer, which is why your second post was moderated so quickly.

  4. Am

    How about the dirt removed in the center of the image? Maybe the removed dirt from the center is the dirt piled on the left.

  5. Geoff Forden (History)

    Let me repeat myself: the amount of dirt in the berm is consistent with the stated size of the facility. It doesn’t prove anything.

  6. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Geoff, I can hardly tell anything about either picture, they are flipping back and forth so rapidly.

    How about displaying them side by side?

    Yes, measuring the volume of soil piled up is a good idea. But I can hardly tell where the soil piles are.

  7. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    The blink comparison is amusing, but if you’re going to study the photos, they’ve got to stand still. Thank you for the stills.

    Some questions.

    1. What are you identifying as the “pile of dirt”? The light-colored area in the upper right quadrant of the second photo?

    2. There’s been a great deal of surface excavation between the two photos. Presumably this is part of the soil pile(s) Have you accounted for that?

    3. From the location of the tunnel entrances, the surface excavation is above the installation. This might make sense for building a concrete reinforcement above the installation. Or not. Any thoughts?

  8. emes (History)

    Holy sh*t! I found this place myself, about 8 months ago. There were so clear traces of underground activity, it couldn’t go unnoticed.

    This is my wikimapia entry dated on that time

  9. Behnam (History)

    Mr. Forden: I agree that a 3,000 centrifuge hall contributes little in terms of the amount of reactor fuel created; but that is not the point.

    The point is that the indestructible plant will ensure that bombing cannot stop enrichment, even if bunker buster or nuclear bombs are used—both of which Iran has been threatened with by its civilized Western counterparts.

    This will make it politically impossible for the U.S. to attack Iran’s facilities, since the new plant obliterates the only argument raised in favor of an attack, viz. the argument that an attack will stop Iran’s uranium enrichment for a while.

    The cost of creating this plant is justified given that it will remove the threat of U.S. bombing of Iran’s multi-billion dollar industry. It is also justified by the leverage it’ll give Iran in its negotiations with the West. Currently, Iran has to negotiate with parties that constantly remind it that “all options are on the table.” It’s like negotiating with a mugger that is holding a gun.

    Iran’s Salehi has already declared the plant a “back-up” site. That’s an apt allusion to the motive behind the site. It is designed to help continue enrichment in the event that the Natanz factory is bombed.

    The only thing I don’t understand is why it took Iran so long to create an indestructible site. My guess is that the answer lies in bureaucratic or political inefficiency borne of a system in which there are multiple centers of power.

  10. emes (History)

    Also, take a look at another place I marked long time ago

    Zoom in and you’ll see lots of vehicle traces. It’s possible that some part of the dirt has been dispersed around, not to make big, outstanding pile of rubble marking the size of excavation.

  11. anonymous (History)

    The irritating ‘blink’ is the signature of this site.

    The sun is at the top of the images. Shadows to the bottom. This is an excavation, not a pile.

    But not to worry. ‘We caught the bastards.’ Scholarship for sure.

  12. Geoff Forden (History)

    Actually, Anonymous, Iran is in the northern hemisphere NOT the southern. So the sun is to the south or bottom of this image.

  13. blowback (History)

    Looking at the early spoil heap (2005), the area of the top is ~9,500 sqm while the area of the bottom is ~14,500 sqm. Assuming a 45deg slope, the maximum depth (at northern tip) is ~14m while the minimum depth (southern edge) is 4m. Simplifying this gives an average area of 12,000 sqm and a average depth of 9m so the volume of the early spoil heap is ~110,000 cubic metres. I would guess that the new pile is about 4 times the early pile, so the total volume would be 550,000 cubic metres. With your expansion factor of 1.4, that means the tunnel volume is ~400,000 cubic metres. For reference, the two huts are about 1000 sqm each.

    It is most likely that the underground structure consists of a roadway and a large chamber(s). If we assume that the first excavation was a roadway to reach the chamber and they were using say Terex TA40 articulated tippers, then the roadway would need to be 6m high by 10m wide giving a spoil volume of 60 cubic metres per linear metre, so the spoil volume of 110,000 which equates to a solid rock volume of 78,000 cubic metres translates to a roadway length of 1300 metres. As for the chamber, the volume of spoil is ~440,000 cubic metres which would result from ~320,000 cubic metres of solid rock. So at a height of 6m, this would give a floor area of over 50,000 sqm. Quite big!

  14. hasslein (History)

    On a somewhat related note: why does the media portray short range missile tests as an “act of defiance” following the disclosure of these facilities? Perhaps I’m naive, but the planning of missile tests – unless facilities and assets happen to be ready for rapid deployment – don’t strike me as defiant, provided they’ve been schedulded previously. From what I’ve gathered, missile tests don’t have a tendency to occur at a moment’s notice.

  15. RAJ47

    The ISIS has only posted images of two possible locations. Even ISIS is not sure if that is THE facility. There is NO repeat NO analysis done by Paul in the pdf quoted except, that they are tunnel entrances.
    Your measurements are all wrong. Don’t assume the width of tunnels, please measure it. I shall wait for your next post.
    As of 26 September 2009, the facility is still under construction and not complete. No nuclear related activity WHATSOEVER can be discerned from these images.

  16. Pedro

    Iran claimed that its IR-4 centrifuges (or so it sounded) have a SWU of 10.

    To archive the SWU of the Natanz plant it would need about 10000 of those future centrifuges.
    Let’s see if the inspectors say something about the size, but I guess 10000 is still within the spectrum of what’s possible for that plant.

  17. Nick (History)


    I am surpised at your 3000 is not enough for replenshing the 25 tons of LEU needed annualy. Let’s do the math. Natanz has a total 54,000 * 1.25 = 67,500 SWU. So what SWU should Qom have to match that annual total? I get SWU of 22.5. It is mentioned that IR4s are about 5 and a cascade of 10 was reported in the last IAEA report. Salehi mentioned newer SWU of 10 are being deisgned. So I think 20+ certainly within reach.

  18. Mark Gubrud

    Benham’s point is that the mountain-tunnel facility is “indestructible” by bombing, which serves to discourage an attack by showing that it would be ineffective (“deterrence by denial” in the American lexicon).

    However, the Qom facility is certainly not indestructible by nuclear weapons, not that there is any reasonable likelihood of a nuclear attack by Israel or the US. It could be put out of action by non-nuclear means in the event of a major US assault on Iran, but that is not likely either.

    The question not answered by Mr. Benham’s point, nor by claims that the Qom plant is for insuring Iran’s civilian nuclear program, is why the plant needed to be kept secret until now, why Iran did not fully comply with its agreements with the IAEA.

    I can understand why Iran would want to pursue and ensure the option to build bombs, given the threats made against it. I think you need to understand this in order to explain why Qom needed to be built, in secret, in addition to Natanz.

  19. George William Herbert (History)

    emes –

    That’s about a kilometer east of the “back door” / ventilation shaft identified by Janes / GeoEye.

    However, those patterns – a berm, circular or closed pattern, etc – match small arms firing ranges found liberally all over the nearby desert area. It’s a Revolutionary Guards base and training site. They are practicing with small arms a lot.

  20. anon

    “When exactly were you planning to tell the rest of us about this new facility?”
    anon • Sep 28, 11:37 AM •

    I agree with anon’s observations. I made similar observations in a post yesterday under the comment section for “Qom, In The Basement” but, it was not posted for whatever reason.

    Accept, Sir, the assurances of my highest consideration :)

  21. ikje

    A clandestine centrifuge plant needs feed in the form of UF6. The Isphahan conversion facility is under IAEA inspection. So there must be at least one other, also clandestine, conversion facility in order to provide the clandestine centrifuge facility with clandestine UF6. Suggestions for a location? UF6 conversions are generally not wise to perform in caves, regarding the toxic chemicals used under harsh chemical conditions.

  22. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Ugh. Caught by the upside-down shadow optical illusion. That’s what I get for multitasking. And this week gets even busier.

    The volume of spoil in the piles can be calculated, although you will probably need some topographic information about the area in the photos. Or you might assume a height for the building and ratio off its shadow height.

    Just eyeballing suggests to me that the pile is much bigger than your calculation.

    But we now know how accurate my quick guesses can be.

  23. Geoff Forden (History)


    You think the berm is higher than 8 meters? No way! My calculation is pretty good.

  24. Andy (History)


    I can understand why Iran would want to pursue and ensure the option to build bombs, given the threats made against it. I think you need to understand this in order to explain why Qom needed to be built, in secret, in addition to Natanz.

    Iran’s program, and its possible military dimensions, is the reason for the threats in the first place. To me it doesn’t make much sense to say the program, and the “option” to build bombs, is necessary due to threats when the program itself, along with any “option,” precipitates those threats.

  25. RAJ47

    Here is another place for you to calculate how much dirt. 31 57 42.99N 72 42 34.01E
    This is in Pakistan. There are two large and a number of small tunnels. This place is known to be carrying out cold testing earlier and stopped in 1990s under pressure from US. If you see the hill to the South, you will find clear indications of ongoing cold testing related activity.
    This and facilities in Iran are provided technological support by China. It is more important to stop China from proliferating.

  26. RAJ47

    somebody has done a better job here link text

    Check the exhaust vents. They give out a lot of information.

  27. Don Williams (History)

    1) Isn’t the claims by US news media that the new Iran facility is “buried inside a mountain” somewhat deceitful?

    2) The puzzling thing about this is that the facility is NOT located insided a mountain — it is shallowly buried under small hillocks. Google’s Terrain option indicates those “mountains” are about 40-60 meters high.

    3) If Iran wanted to protect this from a strike, it should have dug a tunnel into the base of a 1000 meter high granite ridge — — and NOT here. What gives?

    Iran doesn’t have the aircraft and anti-air capability to stand off a US attack —it’s only option is to go deep. So why isn’t it doing so?

  28. FSB

    please look up UN Security council resolution 487 which calls on upon Israel to place its nuclear facility under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s surveillance.

    How do you like that? When do we sanction Israel?

    Here, I will save you the trouble:

    United Nations Security Council Resolution 487
    JUNE 19, 1981

    The Security Council,

    Having considered the agenda contained in document S/Agenda/2280,

    Having noted the contents of the telegram dated 8 June 1981 from the Foreign Minister of Iraq (S/14509),

    Having heard the statements made to the Council on the subject at its 2280th through 2288th meetings,

    Taking note of the statement made by the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the Agency’s Board of Governors on the subject on 9 June 1981 and his statement to the Council at its 2288th meeting on 19 June 1981,

    Further taking note of the resolution adopted by the Board of Governors of the IAEA on 12 June 1981 on the “military attack on the Iraq nuclear research centre and its implications for the Agency” (S/14532),

    Fully aware of the fact that Iraq has been a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons since it came into force in 1970, that in accordance with that Treaty Iraq has accepted IAEA safeguards on all its nuclear activities, and that the Agency has testified that these safeguards have been satisfactorily applied to date,

    Noting furthermore that Israel has not adhered to the non-proliferation Treaty,

    Deeply concerned about the danger to international peace and security created by the premeditated Israeli air attack on Iraqi nuclear installations on 7 June 1981, which could at any time explode the situation in the area, with grave consequences for the vital interests of all States,

    Considering that, under the terms of Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter of the United Nations: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”,

    1. Strongly condemns the military attack by Israel in clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct;

    2. Calls upon Israel to refrain in the future from any such acts or threats thereof;

    3. Further considers that the said attack constitutes a serious threat to the entire IAEA safeguards regime which is the foundation of the non-proliferation Treaty;

    4. Fully recognises the inalienable sovereign right of Iraq, and all other States, especially the developing countries, to establish programmes of technological and nuclear development to develop their economy and industry for peaceful purposes in accordance with their present and future needs and consistent with the internationally accepted objectives of preventing nuclear-weapons proliferation;

    5. Calls upon Israel urgently to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards;

    6. Considers that Iraq is entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it has suffered, responsibility for which has been acknowledged by Israel;

    7. Requests the Secretary-General to keep the Security Council regularly informed of the implementation of this resolution.

  29. FSB

    ISIS is saying: In an analysis based on media reporting and commercial satellite imagery from 2004, 2005 and 2009, it appears that the suspected uranium enrichment facility near Qom, first identified by ISIS on September 25th, was originally a tunnel facility associated with Iran’s military—one of many throughout the country—and not a construction site for a uranium enrichment plant.

  30. Andy (History)


    What is your point? I think pretty much everyone would like to see Israel join the NPT, but I’m not sure how that relates to my comment.

  31. Dr Robert Ilchik (History)

    The topographic relief for this area is 57 m (900 m in the drainage, 957 at the hill top). This is literally making a mountain out of a mole hill.

    I can tell you folks have never ever been to a minesite. The idea that you could spread the dirt 40 cm thick is absurd. (it would cover an area of 1/2 sq km base on the 17,300 m3 estimate). You could not hide that given all the trucks needed to haul it and graders to spread it that thin.

    What you are looking at is a very think concert foundation, probably about 5 m. It would hold some very heavy equipment , perhaps even a reactor. This foundation is about 2x the size of the buildings in the older image, hence about 100 × 50 with an annex at the N about 40 × 40.

    There are no underground tunnels, no vent shafts, no SAM missile battery. Pure fabrication, but a very dangerous one.

    And BTW, the new pile of dirt you talk about is actually an excavation—ie dirt, or maybe limestone to make lime to make the foundation has been taken out!

    You armchair photo analists need to take a deep breath, and let some one with some experience do this job, then you can go debate with facts rather than your own favorite hypothesis

  32. FSB

    let me spoon-feed it then: There are UNSC resolutions against Iran and Israel re. their nuclear programmes. Only the ones against Iran are being enforced.

  33. Andy (History)


    My comment to Mark was about threats, not the unfairness of the international political/legal system.

    My point to Mark was this: Israel and Iran are not meaningful strategic competitors. They are not in competition over resources and they are distant enough that they have very limited means of fighting even if they had reason to. For these reasons, Israel has never shown much interest in attacking Iran despite Iranian support for groups opposing Israel. In recent years it has threatened to attack Iran because it perceives that Iran is pursing nuclear weapons along with the means to deliver them.

    Given Iran’s long-standing support to groups actively fighting Israel, Israel believes Iran might use them offensively or as a bulwark to expand its proxy-war. Israeli threats of attack have grown as Iran’s nuclear capabilities have grown. So, it doesn’t make much sense (to me at least) to argue that Iran needs nuclear weapons to protect itself from the threat of Israel when nuclear weapons are the one thing that would precipitate such an attack. There are no Israeli divisions poised to invade and topple the Iranian regime. Israel is not even supplying advanced weapons and training to Iranian opposition groups. What, exactly, is the threat to Iran from Israel? Israel has no capability to damage the regime or its military forces short of nuking the country. And nukes are not a threat either because Israel had them before the Iranian revolution and was actively (if covertly) allied with Iran through much of the 1980’s against Iraq. One wonders when, exactly, Israel nukes became an existential threat to Iran?

    I could go into Israel’s strategic rationale for nukes, but I will spare everyone. Suffice it to say the were built after Israel came close to losing two wars and they are intended as a guarantee against future invasion. Since Iran doesn’t have any divisions poised to invade Israel and since Iran’s proxies cannot hope to destroy the Israeli state, Iran doesn’t have much to worry about there. So the idea that Iran believes it must have nukes to deter Israel is completely wrong. Somehow that theory has gained a lot of popularity in the West and is often repeated as self-evident truth. It’s not true – Iran is much more worried about threats besides Israel. Until 2003, that threat was Iraq. Since 2003 the only likely existential threat is the USA.

    If that analysis has something to do with the unfairness of UNSC resolution enforcement then I will require further spoon-feeding.

Pin It on Pinterest