Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Bit More Than a “Hole In a Mountain”

Ten days ago, news reports and blogs characterized the Qom site in Iran as “just a hole in a mountain.” This seems to have originated in a quote from Mohamad ElBaradei, which Reuters gives as “nothing to be worried about.” That’s probably accurate and cautiously directed at not upsetting the Geneva talks. Reuters’ headline, however, is “IAEA found nothing serious at Iran site: ElBaradei.”

Now that the IAEA’s report has been issued, it’s clear that the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant is seriously moving toward completion, although nothing to worry about just now. The IAEA took photographs of “cascade piping and other process equipment” and environmental samples to see if enrichment was taking place.
Centrifuge mounting pads, header and sub-header pipes, water piping, electrical cables and cabinets had been put in place but were not yet connected; the passivation tanks, chemical traps, cold traps and cool boxes were also in place but had not been connected. In addition, a utilities building containing electricity transformers and water chillers had also been erected.
The rest sounds fairly irritated with Iran. Regular inspections will ensue, the next in about two weeks. Now there are additional questions that Iran needs to answer about how Fordow fits into its nuclear program.

That’s an issue because, if Iran is indeed building a civilian nuclear capability, it needs more than enrichment. It also needs a fuel fabrication facility, which doesn’t seem to be in prospect; that’s why the fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor has to be fabricated elsewhere. And then there are the turbines and electricity-generating equipment that Iran isn’t building a capability to manufacture. It probably would need to boost its cement and steel manufacturing capacity as well. It is doing none of these.

David Albright points out that
Iran stated that the site was being built in case the Natanz site were bombed. However, in the event of an attack on Natanz, the Fardow plant would likely then have been used to make weapon-grade uranium for nuclear weapons rather than LEU for civil purposes. LEU production would hardly be expected to be a priority during a time of war.
And oh by the way, the IAEA observed drums of heavy water, about thirty tonnes, at the Arak site that the Iranians hadn’t mentioned.

The good news is that enrichment activity seems to be slowing down at Natanz. Whether this is because of the Geneva negotiations or technical difficulties is not clear. If it were because of the negotiations, it would seem useful for the Iranians to declare it as a show of good will. Heck, even if they were having technical difficulties, they could declare it for good will. But they chose not to, which is particularly foolish when the IAEA inspectors would inevitably see the slowdown.


Andy said...

Excellent analysis Cheryl.

Another strange aspect is that Iran says it intends to put IR-1's in this new facility. 3000 IR-1's doesn't provide much enrichment capacity.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Lower enrichment capacity is consistent with Fordow's being a finishing plant for highly enriched uranium after the initial enrichment at Natanz.

b said...

Some facts that are 100% in the post:

Iran has a fuel fabrication plant inaugurated April 9 2009.

Iran has well established turbine and electrical equipment manufacturing capacity.

Iran produces more cement than Germany and more steel than Poland and Australia.

So we see that Iran should be well capable to build a reactor or two or twenty.

As for Qom - it is openly designated as an reserve site to keep the technology available in the case Natanz is bombed. Its value is to show the world that Iran does not depend on one large and easy to bomb facility but could spread production if needed.

All of the above is easy to Google.

Now with the facts established the rest of the post seem to be just a collection of assumptions based on no fact at all.

Bad job Cheryl.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Ah, b.

The fuel fabrication plant seems to be intended for the Arak reactor, which Iran has denied IAEA access to.

Reactors require a higher quality of cement and steel than do most other things. So it's not just a matter of gross numbers.

You have one interpretation of the Fordow plant. But it can also be seen as a finishing plant to bring the uranium enriched at Natanz up to bomb grade. It's about the right size for that. So which do we choose?

As each new facility that Iran hasn't declared is unveiled, Iran's credibility slips a bit more. Bad job. Bad.

Andy said...

And b, the Fordow site is actually easier to bomb than Natanz since it isn't hardened nearly as well. And Iran doesn't need a small "reserve" facility to maintain the technology - that can be done on a small scale in a lab. Fordow isn't large enough to replace Natanz even if Iran had a reactor it needed to make fuel for.

b said...

@Cheryl - we discussed that offline and I pointed you to the resource that includes Iran's claim that the plant is for both - Arak and future light water reactors

@Andy - I have no idea how you can claim which site is better hardened - Natanz or Fordow. There is no open data available on how deep each are or on how they are protected.

Anyway - I believe Fordow is more of a demonstration: "See we CAN distribute our program if you attack Natanz" than of much other use.

Simply to judge from its size and to declare it therefore can only be for this or that purpose is not smart. Iran could plan for and build 20 Fordow sites and have the same capacity than Natanz in a more distributed and safer way.

We simply do not know.

One can not deny that they ARE threatened with an attack nearly on a daily base by the U.S. and Israel. Distribution of capacity is therefore the first recommendation I would give to them to solve that problem.

Back to Cheryl's post. It is clearly way off the facts that are available with a short search.

All what is left of it after refuting the obviously false claims (no FFP, no steel/cement capacity) are simply assertions without much of a base.

How about a correction of at least the facts?

Cheryl Rofer said...

We simply do not know - You've got that right, b.

What I wrote in the post comes from people who have looked at the subject in more detail than I, and I suspect you, have.

The one thing I got wrong was the absence of a fuel fabrication facility. One exists, as the link I included above indicates, but it appears to be primarily for the Arak reactor, whose purpose is not clear. It might be expanded to produce civilian fuel at some future date, but that is speculation.

You also speculate that multiple Fordows might be equal to one Natanz. That, of course, introduces the problem of transporting the partially enriched uranium between facilities. And that brings up the point that Albright raises.

On reading the post again, I see that I have pulled major points from the IAEA report and added some commentary. I see no reason to change anything. Even the fuel fabrication facility fits either a nascent civilian program or a bomb program.

As you say, we simply do not know. That is why the IAEA is right to ask questions.

Andy said...


The differences in construction of the two facilities are plain to see on recent and historic satellite imagery.

Simply to judge from its size and to declare it therefore can only be for this or that purpose is not smart.

I don't think either me nor Cheryl have declared any such thing.

PS, I don't think you need to change your post either Cheryl.

b said...

So you admit the FFP issue is wrong. Where is the correction in the original post?


"And then there are the turbines and electricity-generating equipment that Iran isn’t building a capability to manufacture."

Iran clearly has the capability to building those and I provided you by email with links proving such.

Where is the correction?

"It probably would need to boost its cement and steel manufacturing capacity as well. "

Definitely wrong as its capacity, according to U.S. government sources, is equivalent to many other countries that did build reactors. I provide you by email with links proving such.

Where is the correction?

Other than citing ISIS rumors what is left of your post?


i don't see any.

Cheryl Rofer said...

b - Your links show a lot less than you believe they do. Quantity of cement and steel is only part of the issue - quality is extremely important for nuclear reactor construction.

My information is from people who have looked into this in much more detail than you or I have, but they haven't published their material on the Web.

As to the FFP, so far it's for Arak. Might be for civilian reactors, but, as you said, we don't know that. So what I said in the post is close enough, amended by this comment thread.

And most of the post is from the IAEA report. But maybe you didn't read that.

TMLutas said...

b - The purpose of the IAEA and the NPT is to reduce the chance of war. The probability of war increases when a national government starts deviating from the NPT and agreed upon IAEA regimes. Iran is deviating like mad and that is worrisome not matter what the details. If they do it too much, they'll end up sharing the Baathists' fate, though probably through a mechanism more tailored to Iranian realities.

helmut said...

That would be incredibly smart, creating another "Baathists' fate."

Cheryl Rofer said...

Thanks, TM. The parallel to Saddam Hussein has occurred to me - it's possible that the Iranians are posturing in the same empty way. Awfully stupid, particularly when they have that object lesson next door.