Taking a closer look at the Abadeh site

On September 8, Benyamin Netanyahu revealed yet another site that he alleged to be associated with Iran’s nuclear weapons effort. Unlike Bibi’s previous wonk porn parties, this time the Israeli Prime Minister offered only a few vague details about the site.  He claimed Iran ‘conducted experiments to develop nuclear weapons’ at the facility without mentioning what those experiments were. According to Netanyahu, Israel had learned of the site from the “nuclear archive” that Israel exfiltrated from Iran in early 2018. Netanyahu also asserted that Iran razed the site in July 2019 after determining that Israel knew of its existence.

The facility in question is located at 31.362°N 52.561°E, near the town of Abadeh in Iran’s Fars province. A collection of rather unspectacular buildings, the site offers no signatures that would allow for the clear identification of its purpose, although it does not appear to be a nuclear reactor, reprocessing facility or large-scale enrichment facility. The earliest available satellite imagery available to us shows that the facility was already in existence in 2006, and probably long before that. With the exception of one satellite image taken in February 2011 on which vehicle tracks are visible in the snow, available imagery does not show any signs of activity until early July 2019 when the demolition of the facility began.

While the mountainous terrain impedes physical access, neither fencing or physical barriers are discernible on satellite imagery. (Some small structures may have served as guardposts.) This stands in marked contrast to other covert facilities associated with Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear program, such as Natanz or Fordow. Nevertheless, the facility seems suspicious for a number of reasons. For one, the location is out of place for a civilian facility. The area around Abadeh is in no short supply of unused land so any regular civilian facility could have been built on flat terrain which would not only have resulted in reduced costs but also in a better connection to the area’s main roads. While there are many quarries in the mountains around Abadeh — the region is famed for its marble – the facility is unlike nearby quarries.

Second, in Iran, like in most places on Earth, unused buildings in remote places are usually not torn down but instead left to their own devices. Unless new construction is planned for this spot, its sudden razing after years of inactivity does raise questions. One question is whether the IAEA had requested access to the site. In 2004, the IAEA requested access to a site in Tehran known as Lavizan-Shian.  Iran responded by claiming that the site had been turned over the municipality of Tehran, which immediately razed it.  However, the destruction of the Abadeh’s facility does not appear to include the removal of top-soil and the placement of asphalt to defeat environmental sampling that occurred at Lavizan-Shian.  Of course, such activities may be yet to come.

In conclusion, satellite imagery alone can neither confirm nor falsify Israel’s recent claims about the nature of the Abadeh site. Given that the site was described in the nuclear archive and the lack of apparent activity,  the site seems to be yet another artifact of Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons program. Thus, while potentially historically interesting, the site offers little insight into the current state of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The revelation of the site does, however, point to a challenge raised by how Israel has handled the release of information from the nuclear archive.  Although Israel has provided presentations on the material to groups such as the Institute for Science and International Studies and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, these groups have not been allowed to access the information in the way that would be necessary for scholarly examination of the materials. The existence of this site was known to the Israeli government, but withheld from these groups allowing it to be released during the Israeli election.  What other information remains in the archive remains unknown.

Comments

  1. Nukeman (History)

    A few years back Abbasi-Davani wrote an interesting article about using alpha spectroscopy to measure extremely low levels uranium isotopes in soil and other media. The article is Farsi and looks to be a jab at international organizations by saying we know how to measure extremely low levels of uranium and can beat your environmental sampling methods.

    I have a large library of scientific articles and conference papers written by Abbasi-Davani if you are interested. One of the more interesting conference papers is entitled “Design and construction of deuterium target for fast neutron production”. The paper illustrates the construction of a neutron generator tube using a deuterium target instead of a deuterium-tritium target used in nuclear devices. He also other journal articles that tell about the development of target designs for fast neutron production.

    The IAEA should be inspecting and sampling these sites whether they are old or new to show the international community they take possible proliferation seriously. If suspect sites are found in other possible proliferating countries the IAEA needs to show they have the ability and will do inspections.

  2. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Placing asphalt over soil preserves the materials below it. Organic contaminants may be difficult to distinguish from asphalt components, but metals should remain in place. Drilling through asphalt to sample is no problem.

  3. Fabian Hinz (History)

    Thanks Cheryl, that’s an interesting point! If I remember correctly, a few years ago there was a discussion about Marj as-Sultan and asphalt work which some interpreted as part of a cleanup. So in your opinion it’s not an effective measure of sanitization at all?

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