Iran’s past covert enrichment activities – especially the revelation of Natanz
in 2002 and Fordow in 2009 – have raised concerns about whether other covert
enrichment facilities exist in Iran today. In August 2010, then (and current)
Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi claimed the construction of an additional
enrichment facility had started.
For external intelligence organizations,
there are two main tasks that would need to be undertaken in order to a find a
hidden nuclear enrichment facility: detecting the facility and characterizing
it. A determined proliferator can obstruct both of these tasks with various
Detecting and characterizing a nuclear facility can be done in
several ways: with satellite surveillance; utilizing technologies that can
detect radiation, heat concentrations, sound or vibrations associated with
operating nuclear facilities; or via human intelligence (agents or
One method used by inspectors from the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) is collecting environmental samples at the site of
inspection and measure its isotopic composition between the uranium isotope
U-235 (fissile material) and the isotope U-238 (non-fissile material). In its
natural form, the composition would be about 0.7:99.3. If enrichment has taken
place the composition would have a relatively higher concentration of
In general, the less enrichment that goes on (both in scale and
time), the lesser the chances of detection. Therefore, the size of the facility
is crucial in a covert enrichment operation; the smaller the better. In order to
miniaturize the facility, one should aim for installing as few centrifuges as
possible. In order to reduce the number of enriching centrifuges to a minimum,
one should seek to increase the centrifuge quality, that is, improve their
effectiveness when it comes to separating the isotope U-235 from
The Iranian centrifuge type called IR-2m is considered to be about
3-5 times more effective than the IR-1. Iran could limit the number of
centrifuges necessary – and thus the size of the facility – by only installing
the IR-2m in covert facilities.
The IAEA can only collect environmental
samples at facilities declared by the country in question or at undeclared sites
when the country is a signatory to the Additional Protocol of the
Nonproliferation Treaty. As long as this is not the case, IAEA inspectors do not
pose a serious risk to a country operating hidden facilities. However, external
intelligence agencies could conduct similar missions.
can be done only when specific information about a potential nuclear site
exists. In most cases, however, one would need to look for a needle in the
haystack (without actually knowing whether the needle exist).
effective way to do this by environmental sampling is to use instruments that
can measure the isotopic composition in air samples. Such instruments can have
various detection ranges. In general, instruments with smaller ranges have a
greater chance of detecting enrichment activities.
The problem with
smaller ranges, however, is that for a large country such as Iran, a great many
such instruments would be needed to measure every potential site.
therefore a tradeoff between range and probability of
Moreover, topographical and metrological factors also affect
such instruments’ detection probability. Iran’s topographical conditions, with
hills and valleys, make effective air sampling difficult. Iran can therefore
deduce that such methods are not likely to be undertaken by Western intelligence
organizations unless specific information about a site is obtained.
large country seeking to hide nuclear facilities would therefore concentrate on
obstructing two other potential dangers: satellite imagery and human
intelligence. Satellites can help answer questions regarding both detection and
characterization – and even contribute to a military operation against the
facility by revealing the kind of materials used in the construction process and
other specifications of the facility.
However, given the large size of
Iran, and the somewhat limited satellite assets of most countries, searching
without leads for clandestine facilities is a challenging task. Again, specific
site information could be necessary. However, wide-area satellite searches are
still undertaken by Western intelligence organizations.
One problem for a
proliferator would thus be how to deceive satellites and their operators. There
are several ways to camouflage a nuclear facility. First, one can camouflage a
nuclear facility by pretending it is something else. Syria attempted to conceal
its reactor by constructing a fake exterior, making the building look like an
old Byzantium-era fortress, of a type commonly found in Syria.
one can construct non-nuclear underground facilities in order to attract the
attention of foreign intelligence and exhaust their resources, thus raising the
probability that a real nuclear facility remains hidden.
believe that this was part of Hezbollah’s deception tactics when it in 2006
conducted two digging operations in the village of al-Hiam and near Ras Biada
without attempting to hide the effort.
Third, one can attempt to
incorporate the facility into an existing industrial site such as an oil
refinery or a milling plant, making it difficult for an outside watcher to
identify non-industrial nuclear activities. This is particularly worrisome with
regards to enrichment supportive activities such as uranium extraction
operations and conversion into uranium gas.
However, one would then have
to accept a higher risk of detection from human intelligence since workers
related to non-nuclear activities would also be present at the
There is also the option of choosing a strategy for deniability in
the case one is caught red-handed. The way to do this is to remove or reduce
incriminating evidence before detection. This is what Iran has been doing at the
Parchin site, where it has asphalted large areas of the facility so as to reduce
the IAEA inspectors ´ ability to collect environmental samples.
location of the facility is also a major concern. Syria chose to locate its
reactor in a desert region, hoping it would not attract the interest of foreign
intelligence. One can also choose to minimize on-site security in order to
reduce signatures that could alert foreign parties. On-site security includes
fences, security gates, guard posts and anti-aircraft positions.
latter is of particular importance.
Anti-aircraft positions are
relatively easy to spot on satellite images. Therefore, using them for
protection of a hidden facility would only alert foreign intelligence that
something of value is located within the anti-aircraft battery’s action
One is therefore left with two choices: either construct the
facility in an area already covered by anti-aircraft batteries or avoid such
defensive measures altogether.
However, after exposure Iran could rapidly
deploy batteries to protect it.
Foreign intelligence would thus prefer to
keep mum on its knowledge of an attempted hidden facility, so as not to induce
the country in question to increase its on-site defensive capabilities or
construct another hidden facility.
Both proliferators and external
intelligence organizations are faced with several dilemmas. For a proliferator,
the most important ones would be to decide where the facility should be located
and what defensive measures should be implemented (if any).
intelligence agencies, the main problem would be how to use their limited assets
in the most efficient way.The author is a Norwegian security analyst and
a post-graduate of the MA program in security studies at Tel Aviv University.