Interior of Bushehr nuclear plant 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer Iran)
On December 1, The Sunday Times quoted an Israeli defense source as saying that
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has ordered his intelligence agencies to
search for evidence of clandestine, non-Geneva sanctioned nuclear activity in
Iran. Three areas were highlighted in the Times report: hidden uranium
enrichment sites, ballistic missiles, and bomb design.
Following up my
most recent article (“The Art of Hiding Nuclear Enrichment Facilities,” The
Jerusalem Post, November 24, 2013), this article will outline the opposite task,
that is, how to find a hidden uranium enrichment site.
that supports a hypothesis in most cases neither confirms it nor refutes its
opposite, one should instead look for contradictory evidence. That is,
intelligence organizations should look for evidence that either refutes the
hypothesis that additional enrichment facilities do not exist or refutes the
hypothesis that additional facilities do exist.
With regard to the first
task, the question is what kind of information would need to be acquired to
refute with relatively high probability that additional facilities do not exist.
Naturally, the detection of a hidden facility equipped with centrifuges would
constitute a smoking gun. However, due to the difficulties in detecting small
enrichment facilities with low external signatures, other information channels
should also be pursued. Since a clandestine enrichment facility needs a uranium
source, a good starting point would be to identify such potential sources. A
proliferator has several options: diverting natural uranium ore or yellowcake
from a declared mine or mill; diverting natural uranium ore or yellowcake from
an undeclared mine or mill; diverting uranium gas from a declared conversion
facility; diverting uranium gas from an undeclared conversion facility;
diverting low-enriched uranium from a declared enrichment facility; or importing
uranium from another country.
The Geneva agreement restricts Iran’s
ability to use any of the facilities under IAEA safeguards for clandestine
purposes. Detection of uranium diversion from safeguarded facilities
would indeed constitute evidence of a clandestine program.
In most of the
options, Iran would need to operate a hidden conversion facility. Thus, the
detection of such a conversion facility would constitute smoking-gun evidence.
Locating such a facility should be a major focus.
A proliferator has two
options: either establish a stand-alone conversion facility or co-locate the
conversion facility with an industrial facility such as an oil refinery. One
problem with establishing a stand-alone conversion facility is that one might
need to acquire large amounts of equipment and chemicals from foreign sources,
thus expanding the potential sources of information available to intelligence
organizations. The importation of large amounts of equipment and chemicals with
potential (and perhaps non-dual) use in a conversion facility might be a
valuable source of information.
The importation of uranium is a major
concern since it skips several stages in a domestic nuclear cycle, thus
eliminating the opportunity for detection at those stages. However, importing
uranium would also constitute some risk for the proliferator, especially so in
Iran’s case since the two most likely candidates would be Syria and North Korea,
both of which are under surveillance by several countries.
risks entailed both with involving non-nationals in a clandestine program (which
would need to be the case when one is importing from foreign sources) and with
Reportedly, the shipping of uranium from North Korea to Syria
was one of the signatures leading to the discovery and characterization of the
The second task would involve searching for information
that refutes the existence of additional facilities. One source of information
in this regard would be the nuclear industrial capacity. The lack of capacity in
operating additional facilities – both industrial capability and manpower –
would reduce the probability that such facilities exist.It should also be
acknowledged that although the lack of evidence of additional facilities does
not refute the hypothesis that a clandestine enrichment program exists, it
certainly supports this conclusion.
Though in most cases it will be
difficult to detect a small clandestine centrifuge enrichment facility, it is
still possible to acquire information that will either increase or decrease the
probability of the existence of such a site. The most effective way to do so
might be to collect intelligence on potential uranium sources and illicit
The author is a Norwegian security analyst and a post-graduate of
the MA program in security studies at Tel Aviv University.