Secret Iranian Enrichment Facility Revealed

By Crail, Peter | Arms Control Today, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Secret Iranian Enrichment Facility Revealed


Crail, Peter, Arms Control Today


Iran has been constructing a second uranium-enrichment facility in secret, the leaders of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced during a Sept. 25 press briefing. In a statement delivered on behalf of the three countries and Germany, President Barack Obama said "the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program."

The four countries indicated that they, along with China and Russia, would still move forward with an Oct. 1 meeting in Geneva agreed earlier this month and that, at that meeting, Iran "must cooperate fully and comprehensively with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] to take concrete steps to create confidence and transparency in its nuclear program." They also called on the IAEA to immediately investigate the facility, located on a military base near the Iranian holy city of Qom, and report to the agency's Board of Governors.

British, French, and U.S. officials briefed the IAEA, as well as China and Russia, on the facility earlier during the week.

IAEA spokesman Marc Vidricaire said in a Sept. 25 press statement that Iran provided a letter to the agency Sept. 21 indicating that it was constructing another pilot enrichment plant in the country, which would enrich uranium up to 5 percent. Iran has been operating a pilot-scale enrichment facility at Natanz since 2003.

Uranium is generally enriched to low levels if the material is to be used as fuel in nuclear reactors. The explosive cores of nuclear weapons generally use uranium enriched to 90 percent and higher.

Vidricaire also said that "Iran assured the Agency in the letter that 'Further complementary information will be provided in an appropriate and due time.'"

Senior U.S. officials said during a Sept. 25 background briefing that "Iran learned that the secrecy of the facility was compromised," leading Iran to reveal the site to the IAEA. The officials said that Iran's notification to the agency led the three governments to provide more detailed information about the facility and the support facilities that were producing equipment for it. Otherwise, the United States and its allies intended to disclose information about the facility "early in any dialogue process" with Iran, one of the officials said, according to a transcript of the briefing.

Gathering Information for "Several Years"

According to the senior administration officials, the U.S. intelligence community, working with allied governments, had been aware of the Qom facility "for the past several years." They said, however, that evidence providing "high confidence" that the facility was intended for uranium enrichment was not obtained until earlier this year.

During the background briefing, the officials said that the U.S. intelligence community assesses that the Qom facility is designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuges. That is "not a large enough number to make any sense from a commercial standpoint," one of the officials said. The intelligence community judged that the facility would be able to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for "a bomb or two" per year, the official said.

Iran's commercial-scale enrichment facility at Natanz is designed to hold about 50,000 centrifuges, machines that spin at high speeds to separate the fissile isotope uranium-235 from other uranium isotopes in the enrichment process. The U.S. officials said that because the Natanz facility is currently under international monitoring that would easily detect an attempt to produce weapons-grade uranium, Tehran likely wanted to use another facility, such as the one discovered at Qom, for that purpose.

It is not yet clear what type of centrifuges the Qom facility is designed to hold. The Natanz facility is currently operating with a 1970s-vintage centrifuge design, called the P-I, which Iran acquired from the illicit network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. …

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