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.
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 with IAEA inspections.
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.”
How Many Centrifuges at Qom?
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?
Even 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 (PFEP) 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 documents 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.
So, is the “size and configuration” of the Qom 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 was 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. However, this doesn’t automatically mean that the facility was meant for bomb production. 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 facility’s 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. The US has admitted that intension to produce HEU has not yet been proven, despite the indications for clandestine activity. 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.