Well, it was a good story while it lasted. The Iranians have put their low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile back in underground storage, which should obviate further speculation, at least for now, that they transferred it to an above-ground processing facility in order to get Israel to attack it (the “Road Runner baiting Wyle E. Coyote” theory).
But as Emanuele Ottolenghi notes at Commentary’s “contentions” today, American think-tank experts who follow Iran’s nuclear program closely still considered the LEU move hard to explain. They’ve started talking about the possibility that Iran is building a secret, covert processing network outside of IAEA supervision.
There are indicators that the known stockpile at Natanz, the LEU accounted for by IAEA inspectors, isn’t all the uranium Iran has in a processing pipeline. In other words, there could be other uranium being converted and enriched outside of the declared facilities visited by IAEA at Natanz and Esfahan. If that conclusion is accurate, then putting the known LEU stockpile at Natanz in an above-ground facility doesn’t actually mean making all of Iran’s LEU vulnerable to an air strike. But we would think it did, at least in terms of official estimates.
Before proceeding further, it’s important to establish that there’s a valid reason for putting any LEU in the above-ground facility in question: that’s where Iran can enrich it to a higher level. There’s a technical and logistic reason for moving LEU into the facility, the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, or PFEP, at Natanz. The Iranians didn’t just do it for kicks. When they announced their intention to enrich uranium to 20%, that meant they would, for now at least, be processing LEU in the PFEP.
The unexpected action was moving all of their known LEU to the PFEP at once. This means the Iranians seem to have made their whole LEU stockpile vulnerable unnecessarily. The whole stockpile is also more than they need for the stated purpose of medical application. Those factors are why the action raised eyebrows.
But there’s context for this development, and the most important aspect of that context is that it involves Iranian actions that are not under IAEA supervision. See my links above for the extended case; I will reiterate it only briefly here. It’s this: Iran has for several years had the opportunity and means to mine and process its own uranium outside of IAEA supervision. A documented drop in uranium conversion and enrichment at the supervised sites, in late 2008 and early 2009, may well have represented the point at which Iran transferred her emphasis from processing uranium at the supervised sites to processing it in undeclared, unsupervised facilities. I called this the “Uranium jerk.”
If you can struggle through the techno-jargon and graphs at my earlier blog piece, I think you may find it convincing. One of the key indicators is a dramatic increase in uranium mining and refining at a site in southern Iran, between late 2007 and late 2008. The timing of this development would make it an unbelievable coincidence with the “Uranium jerk” – the drop in follow-on processing output – if the two developments were unrelated.
Iran has plenty of underground space now in which to convert and enrich uranium outside of the declared facilities. The underground space we know about remains entirely uninspected since 2004, except for last fall’s visit to the suspect Fordo site near Qom. (For documentation of all these assertions, see the link to my earlier piece.) That leaves underground sites at Natanz and Esfahan, and two suspect sites outside Tehran, just to name the best-known and most likely.
It can’t be stressed enough that the IAEA has no charter to inspect and account for Iran’s indigenous mining activities, because Iran is not allowing IAEA to act on the provisions of what’s known as the “Additional Protocol” to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So we have had no accountability on what happens to the uranium mined in Iran. We know from satellite imagery that there was a huge increase in 2008 – two years ago – in mining and milling at the mine site in southern Iran. But we can’t account for what has happened to all the uranium mined from that site, either before or after 2008.
Therefore, we simply don’t know if the LEU stockpile that was moved above-ground at Natanz represents all of Iran’s LEU. But the Iranians’ willingness to accept risk for it may well be a fresh indicator that it doesn’t. If there is conversion and enrichment going on elsewhere, outside of IAEA supervision, the movement of LEU to a vulnerable above-ground processing plant appears in a different light.
Ostentatiously placing all of the LEU, at once, in an unnecessarily vulnerable position, could look like setting up a decoy. On the other hand – my assessment – it could just be that if the Iranians feel a separate LEU stash to be safe, they’ll accept the risk posed to the known LEU by moving it all at once. They claim now to have extracted the amount they needed for higher-level enrichment, which is why they’re moving the rest back below ground. Moving the LEU that way could very well have simply been the most technically efficient method for their capabilities.
There’s a growing list of developments that make the most sense if Iran has a separate, unsupervised uranium processing capacity going, and perhaps already a stockpile of undeclared LEU. Again, the most important thing to know about any of this is that the official IAEA inspection process is not going to reveal the truth about that for us: prove or disprove it one way or another. There is no guaranteed way to “catch” Iran doing undeclared uranium processing with the inspection regime that’s in place. To reveal what Iran doesn’t want us to know, we’d have to enforce a change of methodology – over Iran’s objections. That’s where we stand.
Cross-posted at Hot Air’s Greenroom.