Joshua PollackParallel Fuel Cycles, Revisited

Reacting to last week’s Qom revelation, Andreas Persbo wrote that

National technical means combined with human intelligence, however, seems to have averted the worst outcome, the establishment of a parallel fuel cycle.

(See: Parallel Fuel Cycles, September 25, 2009.)

So was the Qom facility was intended as part of a larger system, isolated from the network of declared facilities? It’s possible. A broad hint appeared at the bottom of a story in Sunday’s New York Times, stating that the November 2007 NIE “listed more than a dozen suspect locations” in Iran.

Certainly, the idea is catching on. Earlier this week at the Foreign Policy website, Nima Gerami and James Acton wrote:

Unfortunately, the Qom facility might not be the end of the story. A centrifuge plant needs feedstock, uranium hexafluoride — a material derived from refined uranium ore and produced at a conversion plant. Iran would probably not risk trying to divert feedstock from its declared conversion plant at Esfahan, which is under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran could therefore have also set up a clandestine conversion facility, or have succeeded in procuring the material illicitly.

A somewhat similar observation was offered by Gary Milhollin and Valerie Lincy in Wednesday’s New York Times:

Clearly, the new plant makes more sense if it is one of many. [snip] Such a secret string of plants, however, would probably require a secret source of uranium. Intelligence agencies have been looking for such a source; the Qum discovery should be a signal to increase their efforts.

One place to look might be Iran’s two small uranium mining and milling sites, which aren’t subject to safeguards.

A Stand-Alone Breakout Factory?

Milhollin and Lincy also allow for an alternative possibility: not a parallel fuel cycle, but a plan for the sudden diversion of LEU stocks from Natanz to Qom. This would be a rather risky maneuver.

(Incidentally, this idea is not new; ISIS called it the most likely breakout scenario in an analysis back in March.)

Here’s a related, third possibility. The Qom facility — and perhaps one or more others like it — may have been intended to play a role after an Iranian withdrawal from the NPT. Because Natanz might be attacked under these circumstances, HEU production would instead be undertaken in one or more hidden locations.

This idea isn’t too far from what AEOI chief Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters earlier this week:

“This site is at the base of a mountain and was selected on purpose in a place that would be protected against aerial attack. That’s why the site was chosen adjacent to a military site,” Salehi told a news conference. “It was intended to safeguard our nuclear facilities and reduce the cost of active defense system. If we had chosen another site, we would have had to set up another aerial defense system.”

Natanz already has air defenses, so the cost efficiency that Salehi mentions is rather questionable. It’s also unclear if Salehi meant that burial at “the base of a mountain” would protect the centrifuge hall against attack; Geoff Forden concludes that it’s not buried deeply enough to matter much (see: Cut and Cover, September 29, 2009). In any case, from a defensive perspective, the obvious advantage of the Qom site was secrecy — a secrecy that was lost as soon as the site was acknowledged.

Iranian officials have often approvingly cited the rights that Iran enjoys under the NPT, but at times, others have threatened to withdraw. President Ahmadinejad has intimated that he regards the NPT as fundamentally unfair — see my latest column in the Bulletin for more on this point — and it is conceivable that Iran might someday exercise its withdrawal right, too, much as North Korea has. In such an event, a secret site like Qom would have provided some insurance en route to a tidy little HEU stockpile. That wouldn’t have required an entire parallel fuel cycle.

But this is just one possibility.

Comments

  1. Don Williams (History)

    1) If this has been discussed before, then forgive me for bringing it up and give me a link to the answer.

    2) But WHY would we expect an illegal program to be stationed near Qum? If you want to build such a facility, you want to bury it under a thousand meters of rock — to protect it from even a nuclear attack — and the easiest way to do that is to tunnel into the base of a high, steep mountain. Like the ones they have north of Tehran toward the Caspian Sea.

    3) Plus that is where Russia is and where American or Israel planes would have a difficult time reaching. You would have to cross all of Iran to access it from the Indian Ocean, for example.

    4) So why all the brohaha over a shallowly buried facility down in the flats of Iran?

  2. pkr (History)

    Capacities and layouts of different nuclear facilities are not necessarily consistent with each other. I would guess that it is premature to conclude that there is likely another UCF, although I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that there is one. The Iranians may have decided to use Qom as a backup, should Natanz be destroyed. The already enriched UF6 (LEU) is stored in a way that leaves doubts if it would all be destroyed in an arial attack. Iran could use this LEU as feedstock in an emergency. Another unknown factor is which types of centrifuges the Iranians are going to install in Qom. Should the facility be based on the IR 1, it would take them pretty long (probably more than a year) to enrich enough HEU for one single bomb. The centrifuges in Natanz, all IR 1, never spin at their nominal capacity. Obviously the Iranians still have technical problems with the rotors (vibrations can be a bad thing).

    It would be very different, if Iran (as Salehi has claimed) had succesfully finished the developement of a new generation of centrifuges based on carbon fiber rotors. Depending on the type, they are four to ten times more effective than the aluminium based IR-1-machines. Iran has tested these new types (IR2m – IR4), but is not known to be able to mass produce them. From the procurement side, its hard to tell, because there are fewer products that are exclusively used for this type of centifuge, like certain bellows etc. Carbon fiber, even the specification that you would look for to build centrifuges, has a wide array of other applications, for example in Irans BM program.

    The Bottom line: There are many unknowns and much armchair reasoning and speculation. The best the administration probably could do is to disclose some more details to make their case stronger that this facility was inteded for military purposes.

  3. blowback (History)

    What evidence is there that the US IC knew that this site was to be used for uranium enrichment prior to the IAEA informing the US government of Iran’s announcement of its purpose to the IAEA? I fully accept that the US IC knew that there was something going on at this site since it is clearly visible in commercially-available satellite imagery. I fully accept that the US IC might guess that it was something to do with Iran’s civil nuclear program but that is not the same as knowing it was for nuclear enrichment. Can you suggest how the US IC would know this? Why have we seen no evidence from the US IC to justify their claims?

  4. Ataune (History)

    The 3 possibilities you are mentioning here are not the only ones imaginable in today’s context. If you set your mind in a scientific framework instead of military-security one, you might come up with the most rational and plausible reason for building the new facility rather than the worst case scenarios you are mentioning:

    Iran is trying to protect its most valuable assets – i.e scientific and technological knowledge in building centrifuges. The conversion facility and/or the mining ones are rather “crude” technologies (compared to IR3/4/5 centrifuge) that can easily be re-built after an attack.

  5. Josh (History)

    pkr:

    The reference to a “pilot” facility in Iran’s message of last week to the IAEA makes me think it’s probably not IR-1s. But we shall see.

    Salehi recently said that Iran has a new generation of centrifuges that do 5 kg/SWU, if I correctly understand the news story in question. Again, it remains to be seen, but it’s certainly within the realm of reasonable possibility.

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