Robert Kelley – Next Steps Forward for the IAEA and IranPosted: January 31, 2013
I am honored, and feel truly privileged to welcome Robert Kelley as a guest contributor to ACL. Bob is a nuclear engineer and a veteran of over 35 years in the US DOE’s nuclear weapons complex, most recently at Los Alamos. He managed the centrifuge and plutonium metallurgy programs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and was seconded by the US DOE to the IAEA where he served twice as a Director in the nuclear inspections in Iraq, in 1992-1993 and 2002-2003. He is currently an Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Next Steps Forward for the IAEA and Iran
The IAEA and Iran’s government have developed a tense working relationship for which both bear blame. On several occasions, Iran has failed to declare nuclear fuel cycle-related activities in a timely way, as it is obliged to do under its agreement with the agency. At best this can be seen as bad faith in the relationship; at worst, deliberate withholding by Iran.
Beyond that, however, the IAEA is trying to expand its inspection program in Iran by demanding access to undeclared facilities. These requests are on shaky ground, partly because since Iran has not ratified the Additional Protocol they go well beyond the IAEA’s clear rights and authorities, and partly because they are based upon information that is flimsy and suspect.
By openly providing a questionable technical basis for inspections the IAEA is leaving itself open to a serious loss of credibility as a technical organization. While the IAEA seems to do a good job of accounting for nuclear materials around the world, its traditional area of expertise, there is no external oversight of this process. If there are problems with IAEA’s methods and performance they would likely only be revealed by complaints from a member state itself. Only the IAEA Board of Governors can adjudicate this.
Outside the area of materials accountancy, in the inspection of facilities deemed to be part of a suspect nuclear program, the IAEA has drifted far from its core competencies. In Syria, for example, the IAEA was successful in collecting uranium particles at a site that had been “sanitized.” But then the IAEA cavalierly dismissed Syrian explanations that the natural uranium particles found at a bombed suspect site came from Israeli missiles. The agency’s claims that the particles are not of the correct isotopic and chemical composition for missiles, displays an appalling lack of technical knowledge about military munitions based on information from questionable sources. If the IAEA is to be respected it must get proper technical advice. For example deep earth penetrating bombs, not missiles were used in Syria.
In the case of Parchin, the IAEA is relying upon secret information provided by unspecified states or parties. A great deal of the information has been selectively leaked to create an impression that the agency has significant reason to want to visit a particular building, among hundreds at the site. The IAEA bases its request upon a suspicion that that the building was used for experiments involving explosives and uranium to understand the hydrodynamic behavior of a neutron initiator for a nuclear explosive. Such experiments, if they occurred, would use a few grams of uranium in a huge chamber. They would probably be a violation of Iran’s nuclear safeguards undertakings. However the IAEA has failed to make a convincing case that these experiments took place. And it has added confusion by saying the most important experiments involving test explosions took place at an Iranian town called Marivan, 500 kilometers away.
Some of the experiments described by the IAEA do not and cannot use uranium. The results would be inconclusive if they did. So the basis for the IAEA’s requests continues to be opaque. The timeline for the alleged experiments is also highly suspect, with claims that massive experimental facilities had been fabricated even before they had been designed, according to the available information. The IAEA work to date, including the mischaracterization of satellite images of Parchin, is more consistent with an IAEA agenda to target Iran than of technical analysis.
Further clouding the picture is Iran’s massive redevelopment of the area around the buildings at Parchin the IAEA wants to visit, which were largely inactive for many years. This activity began with a sudden flurry after the IAEA first asked for a visit in 2012. Bulldozers and other vehicles appeared at the suspect site delivering or removing equipment, moving roads, bulldozing an area immediately east of the suspect building, and water was observed coming from one building. The sudden activity heightened suspicion that Iran was trying to hide something but it really doesn’t prove anything.
For one thing, water has been observed coming from this building and an adjacent one in past years. Moreover, sensitive environmental samples are not collected in buckets of dirt as the bulldozing suspicions might have made people think. The IAEA will not be taking soil samples around the Parchin buildings because it would be counterproductive — ordinary soil contains considerable particles of uranium which interferes with the very sensitive process of detecting nanoparticles of man-modified material. Inspectors will, instead, take very clean wipes from carefully chosen spots inside the buildings of interest. If Iran has done a massive amount of cleaning and painting inside the building to hide uranium, the IAEA will have to work harder to collect useful samples. But it can be done and traces of uranium are hard to conceal.
However, the IAEA’s continuing requests to visit a military site for tenuous reasons are an irritant to Iran and delaying a resumption of talks between the P5+1 and Iran. The IAEA should do some serious rethinking about the technical validity of its request. Based upon the evidence provided so far and the extensive leaks, there is little to suggest that Parchin is the place for IAEA to take a stand.
(A version of this article first appeared in the Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, Vol. VII, No. 3, January 18, 2013)