Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Qom Uranium Enrichment Facility – What and How Do We Know?

Via FAS Strategic Security Blog -

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.


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.


Great review of the public intelligence on the Qom Facility. See the full FAS blog for more details, including possible uranium enrichment scenarios...

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