Nuclear Weapons

Figuring Out Fordow

12.02.09 | 3 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

Last week, my ace research assistant, Ivanka Bazashka, and I published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists an analysis of Iran’s recently revealed Fordow uranium enrichment facility, lying just north of Qom.  In summary, we concluded that the timing of the construction and announcement of the facility did not prove an Iranian intention to deceive the agency but certainly raises many troubling questions.  The facility is far too small for a commercial enrichment facility, raising additional serious concerns that it might be intended as a covert facility to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons.  But we also argued that the facility is actually too small to be of great use to a weapons program.  A quite plausible explanation is that the facility was meant to be one of several covert enrichment facilities and simply the only one to be discovered.  We believe, however, that it is significant that the Iranians assured the agency that they “did not have any other nuclear facilities that were currently under construction or in operation that had not yet been declared to the Agency” because any additional facilities uncovered in the future will be almost impossible to explain innocently. This, however, does not preclude Iran from making a decision to construct new enrichment facilities in the future.

Well, in just a few days, things have changed.  We immediately got a lot of emails (some of them quite rude!) challenging our numbers.  The Bulletin does not allow for lots of technical detail and we could not put our calculation in the article.  So Ivanka and I have written an explanation of the derivation of our numbers.  It is the first of a new format for the FAS website, FAS Issue Briefs.  I expect that Hans, Matt, Nishal, and others will make good use of the format in the future.  You can see our calculations in Calculating the Capacity of Fordow.

We show in our Issue Brief that the oft-cited performance of the Iranian centrifuge is based, at best, on hearsay, and, at worst, circular citations.  Reporters get away all the time with citing “high level officials” and the like but analysts do not have that luxury.  The reason that we are discussing the Iranian enrichment program is because of grave, immediate policy implications.  This not just a question of when Iran might get the bomb, but should we take military action, should we go to war, and when.  Ivanka and I conclude that the approach most often taken for estimating Iranian performance is unreliable and will almost certainly overestimate their capabilities.  We demonstrate an alternative based on universally accepted, publicly available data.

In particular, we should be very wary of Iranian statements of their own capability.  If I said that the National Ignition Facility at Livermore National Laboratory was going to achieve break even laser fusion within a year and cited an interview with the director of NIF, everyone would laugh at me.  Statements by Iran about Iran’s capability should be taken with an equally large grain of salt.  The Iranians brag about their technological virtuosity, specifically that, in spite of sanctions, they are still able to enrich uranium.   It is obviously a matter of national pride.  But do they explain to their taxpayers that they are spending billions of dollars to struggle to reproduce technology that the Europeans left behind as obsolete a half century ago and even that they do inefficiently?  Our calculations, based on publicly available IAEA reports, shows that Iran is operating its centrifuges at 20-25% of what we might expect.

The second big change is Iran’s announcement of ten new future enrichment facilities.  We argued in our Bulletin article that it was significant that Iran told the IAEA that there were no undeclared facilities waiting to be discovered.  Ivanka was more skeptical, saying that this declaration meant little if the Iranians used their definition of when they were required to “declare.”  I thought it more significant because any future discovery would be impossible to portray as innocent.  On the other hand, we also said that the Fordow facililty did not make much sense except as part of a network of clandestine facilities.  Well, the Iranians helped resolve that question when a few days later they announced that they were going to build ten new enrichment facilities, probably similar to Fordow.  It is getting harder and harder to give Iran the benefit of the doubt.