Detecting nuclear enrichment facilities

"Detection of uranium diversion from safeguarded facilities would indeed constitute evidence of a clandestine program."

Interior of Bushehr nuclear plant 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer Iran)
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.
Since information 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.
There are 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 shipping.
Reportedly, the shipping of uranium from North Korea to Syria was one of the signatures leading to the discovery and characterization of the al-Kibar reactor.
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 trade.

The author is a Norwegian security analyst and a post-graduate of the MA program in security studies at Tel Aviv University.