Geoff FordenCut and Cover

On the left, a GoogleEarth image dating from March 2005 showing the uncovered facilities existing at that time (before being buried); on the right, the probable main centrifuge hall as it appeared in late September 2009, also before being buried.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there are no tunnels at the Qom site; its all cut and cover. In the March 2005 image, shown on the left above, Iran has leveled the “valleys” on top of the hill and then constructed “huts” to be buried; I have labeled those Hall 1 and Hall 2. Hall 3, shown in the ISIS/DigitalGlobe image on the right, has been constructed in an excavation. If you measure the floor areas of these three halls, 1 and 2 each have an area of 1000 square meters while Hall 3 has an area of 4180 square meters (roughly!). Halls 1 and 2 have been covered in the ISIS/DigitalGlobe image with soil (previously stored somewhere not yet identified) while Hall 3 still remains unburied.

Using the average area per effective centrifuge I calculated for a previous post, Hall 3 can hold 2900 centrifuges. The <a href= < earthen berm whose volume I calculated before nicely matches the hole for Hall 3. If Halls 1 and 2 are also used for centrifuges, the entire site could contain 4300 centrifuges. It is interesting to note that if Hall three is covered with only the soil removed from the hole, it will only be buried to a depth of less than 5 meters. Since Hall 3 has not been covered, it seems safe to assume that they have not installed any centrifuges in it yet. Installing the supporting infrastructure—air conditioning, power and control cables—is undoubtedly facilitated by working on the unburied site.


  1. Hippo1


    It’s not so obvious. Both ISIS and Jane’s believe the buildings pictured in 2005 cover tunnel entrances. Indeed, Jane’s speculates that the potential underground area could be up to twice as large as that found at Natanz. This analysis appears to be based on the location of what they assess to be a rear auxiliary entrance to the facility. If accurate, this new facility would certainly qualify as a potential back up facility Natanz, particularly if it eventually held more advanced centrifuges.

  2. Benham (History)

    Reports say the facility is in Fourdou (Fardu?). So, it is not clear this is the image shows the site in question. Fardu is to the South of Qumm while this image shows a place to the North East.

    Fardu, incidentally, is closer to Natanz; so Fardu and Natanz could be complementary sites.

    I think all of us have rushed to speculate as to what this all means, and maybe that’s all premature. Recall the discovery of highly enriched uranium traces in Iran? The US cited that as proof that Iran is up to no good. But that came to nothing. Then there were U.S. Government claims about facilities where weapons work was done, in which IAEO found nothing. So, let’s give this some time.

    By the way, I think innocuous comments are being rejected. Are there multiple moderators, each with a different attitude?

  3. rs (History)

    Your claim is not quite so obvious to ISIS; their information paper states that the buildings are over/connected to tunnel facilities. It is not obvious from the information on this page or theirs which of the two is true, so I think you run the risk of deflating the possibilities here.

    This would be a great way of deflecting criticism: invite inspectors to visit the sites. As long as the tunnel facilities are not discovered (assuming they exist), the Iranians declare a media win and can go along their merry way.

    I always got advice from my teachers: do not use the word “obvious” unless there is no other possibility.

  4. RAJ47

    Your interpretation of the images is absolutely novice if not laughable. Please take help of some of the best guys in the field. Jeffrey has taken assistance of SOC for “Box of Burma”.

    The areas you are identifying as Hall 1, 2 and 3 are infact only entrances. I had given you a link in my third comment for your “How Much Dirt?” post. Probably you have overlooked it. The area inside is definitely much much larger than you are expecting.

    You have not taken into account the January 2009 image at all.

  5. Dr Robert Ilchik (History)

    You are on the right track here, but Hall 3 is a foundation for a structure to be built on top of it. Look at the NYT image 5 from Mar 2009. It shows that the structure is a solid block of concert which based on the shadows seems to be about 5 m thick. This would be the foundation for some very heavy equipment. Given that to the NW there is a circular cleared area which could be for a cooling tower, my guess is that this would be a footing for a reactor. This would be just as the Iranians have said.

    What you mark as Hall 1 (and likely 2) are loading ramps for dumping excavated material into trucks. Look closely and you will see there is a small safety berm at the end of the middle ramp to prevent equipment from going too far.

    Going back to the NYT images of 29 Sept, the claim of ventilation shafts is not credible as they are too close to the ground (~1 m), too close together, and too irregular in shape—these are most likely piles of rocks. The purported SAM site about a 2 km to the NW is actually a munitions dump, the berms there are to deflect a blast if one blows up (Compare to 38.51N; 118.6W on google earth.) This is the Naval weapons storage base at Hawthorn Nevada. The main difference being the there is a bast deflector opposite the entrances there, but not the vertical slab of concert which forms the entrance.

    BTW, I am a geologist—we do know holes in the ground better than most!

    Cheers, and contact me if you have questions, but good job, you have made a good first pass at this hoax.


  6. Dr Robert Ilchik (History)

    Oh, I forgot to add, that people are literally making a mountain out of a mole hill here. The drainage bottom is at 900 m, the “peak” towers over it by all of 57 m! I think given all the mountains in Iran, that they could easily find one that would be more suitable.

    This is clearly a cat-mouse hoax to play the US as stupid, and way too many seem to have taken the bait, I am sorry to say.

  7. Dr Robert Ilchik (History)

    Not to dominate the debate here, but I would like to respond to Hippo1. If there are underground workings here, where is the excavated dirt? To make any meaningful sized tunnel network (and again the topograph does not support the idea) you have to remove large amounts of dirt and put it somewhere—have you ever been to a mine? You might say they took it away, but then that means lots of truck traffic, which means lots of tracks from the movement of heavy truck which one could follow to the dump.

    Also if the 2005 buildings covered entrances, then why can one see a gap between the edge of the building and the ground all the way around? If they cover shafts, where is the hoisting mechanism?

  8. Allen Thomson (History)

    Cut and cover might offer some protection from near-misses if the facility were to be bombed, but not from direct hits. Since the potential bombers would most likely use precision-guided weapons with accuracies of ten meters or better, what does C&C gain?

  9. Geoff Forden (History)


    Never underestimate the value of experience. The Iranians made Natanz with a cut and cover procedure and its becoming increasingly obvious that they were employing their Natanz centrifuge plant experts to at least design the Qom site during the “cessation” of enrichment. This is a classic example of why zero enrichment in Iran will not work, at least from the Western perspective of what “work” means.

  10. blowback (History)

    Dr Ilchik – those spoil tips you see contain about 500,000 cubic metres of waste. The one you see in early images on Google Maps has an area of about 12,000 sqm and a depth of about 9 metres so that gives a volume of 108,000 cubic metres. Just eyeballing the first tip against the more recent one suggests that the more recent one is about four times the size of the earlier one, so that suggests that the total volume of spoil is about 550,000 cubic metres. If the first tip results from driving two access tunnels, then those tunnels could be between half a kilometer (large-bore tunnel) and three kilometers (small bore)long. If the second tip is the result of digging the chambers at the end of those access tunnels, then the chambers could be say 75,000 sqms and four metres in height.
    As for the shafts and lift gear, you must have been in a drift mine.
    With three kilometer long access tunnels, the chambers could be several hundred metres below the ground.
    So I agree that cut and cover is unlikely but the evidence for the size of the underground workings is available in the satellite imagery we have access to.
    My background, I trained as a civil engineer and have an acquaintanceship with tunnel sites.

  11. Ataune (History)

    </a> Just trying to insert an end tag for the links.

  12. Allen Thomson (History)

    A useful quick summary of bunkers of various levels of hardness. Some are obviously designed with nukes in mind, but the ones with burster slabs are also for conventional attacks.

  13. RAJ47

    check this image.
    link text

  14. hass (History)

    Thought you wonks may be interested in Glenn Greenwald’s take on how the media is perpetuating fear on Iran as in case of Iraq:

    What evidence is there that the Iranians reported this facility to the IAEA only because they learned that the U.S. had discovered the facility? For that matter, what evidence is there that the Iranians ever realized this at all? Whether Iran reported the facility voluntarily or only because they were forced to do so by virtue of having been “caught” is a self-evidently relevant fact to all of this, and yet the claims of anonymous officials on this question are uncritically assumed to be true without any skepticism, demands for evidence, or consideration of alternative views…. Provocative, unproven claims — ones that will obviously inflame war passions among a significant segment of the population — are passed on with no evidence and little questioning. Dissenting voices are excluded (other than a fleeting, token quote from the Iranian President buried in the middle). And overnight, an extremely fear-inciting and sensationalistic case against Iran was cemented as unchallengeable wisdom across the political spectrum.

  15. walker

    The original post and some of the discussion seem to neglect the image taken between these two, linked by RAJ47, which shows the “halls” 1 and 2 under construction earlier this year before they were covered over. The structures from the 2005 image have clearly been removed.

  16. kme

    hass: The most remarkable thing about all of this might well be the implication that Iran has (had) a good source on what the US IC knew – surely if true this would be a most remarkable fact…

  17. Dr Robert Ilchik (History)


    I respectfully suggest that you re-examine the image. What you refer to are cut and fill used to flatten an area, these are not dumps. The S side has been excavated and the material dumped at the N end to make a flat spot. There is not 1,000,000+ tonnes (500k m3) of material here. The amount of relief you SPECULATE is way too high. From the toe of the excavation in the 2005 image to the nearby building is only 11 m at best.

    Which again points out one of the major problems here: This is a basically flat area with a small (<60 m) hill a the S end. Given the amount of mining which has gone on in this country, why not use an abandoned mine for the purported clandestine facility?

    The other major problem is where are the power lines needed to run all the calutrons? This facility is all above ground, is still under construction, and is most likely just what the Iranians claim it to be: an enrichment facility for reactor fuel.

  18. - M (History)

    Has anyone looked at what type of rock is present at Qom site in Iran? With that information you could extrapolate what type of excavation equipment is needed to create long deep tunnels and work chambers. Tunneling is very expensive and time consuming and needs large amounts of equipment, material and energy. The daily or weekly sat photos should indicate this activity.

  19. blowback (History)

    Dr Ilchik – we might be talking at cross-purposes. I was not refering to the excavations around the buildings. The spoil heap I refer to is in the centre of this image from Google Earth. There is a distinct shadow along the northern edge but no shadow along the southern edge of the spoil tip which suggests that both edges are above the original surface rather than an area where cut and fill has been used to provide a flat area. The total area of the heap is in the region of 14,500 square metres.

    BTW, what do you estimate the size of the two buildings to be?

    Calutrons? I thought the Iranians used gas centrifuges.

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