Paving, Penetrators and the Parchin Probe: Issues in Environmental Sampling by the IAEAPosted: May 29, 2013
I am extremely pleased to introduce another guest post from good friend of ACL, Professor Yousaf Butt, of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Yousaf has produced what I think is an extremely important technical appraisal of a number of issues connected both with the Parchin military site in Iran, and the Al Kibar site in Syria, both of which have been targeted for scrutiny by the IAEA. Yousaf brings to this analysis his very impressive qualifications and scientific expertise (seriously, look it up here, Yousaf is a seriously well qualified nuclear physicist – not just another self-styled wonk with a degree in policy studies who likes to talk about missiles and nukes). For us lawyers, this kind of expert technical appraisal is vital for understanding the underlying technical issues that are the subject of legal regulation. I plan to follow up Yousaf’s post in the next day or so with a post of my own on the legal implications of his analysis. But for now, enjoy!
Paving, Penetrators and the Parchin Probe: Issues in Environmental Sampling by the IAEA
By: Yousaf Butt
Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is research professor and scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Last week, the IAEA released a new report on Iran, where it again found Iran in compliance with its safeguards agreement by explicitly stating “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement.” As former UK ambassador to the IAEA, Peter Jenkins, and I mentioned in a recent Reuters piece: “Iran is now in compliance.” Tehran has explained or corrected every substantiated and lawful issue, as confirmed by the Agency in 2008.
The IAEA has, however, raised a number of other subjective “concerns” that go beyond the letter of the Safeguards Agreement. It would be nice of Iran to cooperate with these extra-judicial requests but it is certainly under no legal obligation to do so.
For instance, the IAEA says it has secret information (which it will not share, even with Iran) from a member state’s intelligence agency indicating that Iran may have constructed a large steel chamber in a building for conducting conventional high explosives experiments—some of which may have involved natural (not enriched) uranium—which could be associated with a secret program to do research on nuclear bombs. As former IAEA inspector and veteran nuclear weapons engineer Robert Kelley explains in an expert report the whole scenario is a bit of a stretch from a technical standpoint:
A chamber such as the one claimed to be in the building is neither necessary nor particularly useful for developing a first-generation nuclear weapon. Such development tests have normally been done outdoors for decades.
Iran continues to conduct activities at the suspect Parchin site that will further complicate the verification work of the IAEA. According to the IAEA’s report, “Iran has conducted further spreading, leveling and compacting of material over most of the site, a significant proportion of which it has also asphalted.” ISIS’s satellite imagery brief released today illuminates Iran’s work at the site and appears to confirm these paving and asphalting activities. The Parchin site is the location of a test chamber that is suspected of being used for containing high explosives tests related to nuclear weapons development. Iran began altering the buildings at this site and the site itself during the spring of 2012, shortly after the IAEA requested access to this site. The IAEA in this latest safeguards report states that “satellite imagery available to the Agency [IAEA] for the period from February 2005 to January 2012 shows virtually no activity at or near the building housing the containment vessel (chamber building). Since the Agency’s first request for access to this location, however, satellite imagery shows that extensive activities and resultant changes have taken place at this location.
Is this paving work at Parchin – which is clearly not over “most of the site” as alleged by ISIS — really a problem for the IAEA?
As I explain below, there is no issue here mainly because any samples of interest to pick up trace amounts of uranium would normally be taken from inside buildings. (Naturally occurring uranium complicates outdoors environmental sampling: Even though it is possible to tell apart man-modified uranium from naturally occurring oxides, it is hard to segregate interesting particles using sensitive IAEA techniques.) And, in any case, there is plenty of undisturbed ground adjacent to the building that the IAEA could still take environmental samples from if — for some reason — they wanted to do this. As an expert SIPRI report concluded earlier this year:
The fact that the building’s immediate vicinity has been largely untouched on the west side strongly suggests that the purpose of the earth-moving operations was for construction and renovation work and not for ‘sanitizing’ the site by covering up contamination. In any event, the IAEA should not be collecting samples of dirt or dead vegetation to detect tiny uranium traces.
Additionally, ISIS has propagated the technically ill-informed suggestion that tungsten could have been used as a surrogate for unenriched uranium in such tests. There are at least two problems with that scenario:
(1) Tungsten is a very hard brittle material that melts at over 3400 C. In fact it is virtually impossible to melt tungsten and cast it into precise shapes and it is almost impossible to machine. So tungsten precision parts are made by pressing very pure tungsten powder in very precise molds so that the resulting shapes don’t need to be machined. If someone is using tungsten as a surrogate for testing uranium bomb parts they must be very precise in dimensions so this procedure must be used. It is a major industrial development project in its own right. Furthermore, tungsten has very different mechanical properties from uranium in every regard except for density. So it is a lousy surrogate for uranium in a test relevant to possible nuclear weaponization studies. The results of such a test will be largely meaningless.
(2) Tungsten is not a nuclear material and, unlike uranium, there is no need for Iran to declare what it is doing with tungsten, so there would be no legal safeguards issue even if Iran were to have done implosion tests with tungsten or other non-fissile material.
Before delving into further technical issues regarding the Parchin site in Iran, let’s examine the related mishandling and misreporting of the IAEA’s environmental sampling in Syria, since it is relevant to judging the IAEA’s competency, impartiality and professionalism in such environmental sampling.
In 2008, the IAEA inspected a site in Syria believed to be an undeclared nuclear reactor, which had been bombed by the Israeli Air Force a year earlier. Syria had bulldozed the site and demolished a building there before the IAEA team arrived. Nevertheless, the inspectors found several microscopic man-modified uranium particles in the soil around the site, as well as in an adjacent building. These particles could be from either uranium metal fuel for a reactor, or they could be from natural uranium metal casings for a deep, earth-penetrating bomb, such as those used in the Israeli raid.
Deeply penetrating earth bombs require a very strong and very heavy casing that allows the bomb to penetrate through concrete shields, concrete roofs, hard rock and many meters of soil. These bombs are designed to penetrate deeply into the earth, for example into a bunker, an underground facility or a tunnel. They are designed to protect the explosive part of the bomb until it is deep in the earth, for example in a basement or the bottom of a nuclear reactor core. Tungsten and very strong steel casings are known to be used in these deeply earth penetrating bombs. Uranium metal would be even better than these two materials and has been proposed by defense contractors in the US, but its use in the US or other countries is unknown.
The strength and material properties of uranium metal are exactly equivalent whether the uranium is natural or depleted. Unfortunately, the term “depleted uranium munitions” came into common use because the US used large amounts of scrap depleted uranium in the weapons described above. This has led some non-technical observers to believe that only depleted uranium can be and is used in penetrating weapons. This is false. Natural uranium is equally effective and can be used in the same applications. The correct term would be “uranium metal munitions.” But the term “depleted uranium” has, unfortunately, stuck.
So, despite the fact that the IAEA’s detection of the man-modified natural uranium particles could not be tied to either uranium nuclear reactor fuel or to the ordnance used in the Israeli raid — or some other source — with high confidence, the IAEA used the results of its environmental inspections to attempt to implicate Syria in wrongdoing. In its 2008 report the IAEA stated:
Analysis of the environmental samples taken from the Dair Alzour site carried out by a number of the Agency’s Network of Analytical Laboratories revealed a significant number of natural uranium particles. The analysis of these particles indicates that the uranium is anthropogenic, i.e. that the material was produced as a result of chemical processing. As indicated above, Syria stated that the only explanation for these particles was that they were contained in the missiles used to destroy the building.
In a 2011 follow-on report the IAEA observed that “Syria has also maintained that the particles of anthropogenic natural uranium found in samples taken during the Agency’s June 2008 visit to the Dair Alzour site originated from the missiles used to destroy the building,” but that, “the Agency has assessed that the probability that the particles originated from the missiles used to destroy the building is low.”
The report went on:
The Agency also assessed that there is a low probability that the particles were introduced by aerial dispersion. The presence of such uranium particles points to the possibility of nuclear related activities at the site and adds to questions concerning the nature of the destroyed building. Syria has yet to provide satisfactory explanations for the origin and presence of these particles. In this context, information yet to be provided by Israel might be helpful in clarifying the matter. [emphasis added]
In fact, the information was never provided by Israel, so it is impossible to conclude that the man-modified uranium particles could not have come from Israeli ordnance. It would have been straightforward to clear up the true origin of the detected particles had Israel been more forthcoming about the composition of the materials used in its ordnance. Although depleted uranium is used in some earth-penetrating ordnance, so is natural uranium. However, Israel waved off the IAEA’s requests to give the Agency more information. And unlike with Iran and Syria, the IAEA has not insisted that Israel provide it with the further necessary forensic evidence.
The uranium particles detected by IAEA do not rule out the use of natural uranium earth penetrators nor do they confirm them. The particles neither confirm the presence of natural uranium fuel nor do they exclude it. Absent further information on the composition of the Israeli ordnance used, the uranium particles detected by the IAEA don’t prove anything. If anything, the burden of proof now falls on Israel to confirm that the ordnance used could not have been the source of the particles.
There is, thus, reason to be very skeptical of the IAEA’s unfounded implication that “[t]he presence of such uranium particles points to the possibility of nuclear related activities at the site,” or that the “probability that the particles originated from the missiles used to destroy the building is low.”
A US Intelligence briefing following the raid said quite clearly that the “reactor was destroyed in an Israeli air strike early in the morning of 6 September 2007 as it was nearing completion but before it had been operated and before it was charged with uranium fuel.” [emphasis added] And a detailed Spiegel report mentioned that the uranium fuel had likely just arrived in country a few months before. As the putative reactor was still under construction, the US intelligence report that the reactor was unfueled at the time of the attack makes complete sense. It would be folly to put delicate fuel rods in a building where construction was still underway.
Thus, in Syria’s case the IAEA’s environmental sampling was completely inconclusive, but nevertheless improperly used to try to implicate Syria in wrongdoing even before other alternative explanations were eliminated. It also showed that the sensitive particle sampling techniques used by the IAEA are powerful enough to detect uranium — whatever the true source – even after a site has been bulldozed and incompletely sanitized.
Returning to the issue of Iran’s Parchin site, environmental sampling – should it be needed — could still be done in the large areas that are undisturbed immediately adjacent to the building of interest. Thus the issue of paving and bulldozing only east of the building is a red-herring. In any case, what would normally be done to sample for past traces of uranium would be to take swipes from inside the building or associated nearby buildings, not outside. So reports about roads, paving etc. – especially when undisturbed areas abound nearby – is technically not meaningful.
The ISIS group has further confused the issue by implying that uranium would be used in the alleged hemispherical tests employed to gauge the symmetry of the conventional explosive shockwave. Regarding the possible alleged tests, ISIS states that one might be a, “test to ascertain the symmetry of an imploding hemispherical shell of high explosives, surrounding a natural uranium metal hemisphere, in a scaled down experiment of an implosion package.”
However, the point of the alleged hemisphere test is to monitor the light breakout as the conventional explosive shock wave breaks through the inside surface of the high explosive hemisphere. The time spread of the light bursts tells one about the symmetry of the implosion, and whether or not everything is precisely designed and timed properly. If the light bursts have a large time spread in break-out then this implies that the lighting of the outside of the sphere is not adequately precise in time or that the high explosive itself is not adequately homogenous.
If there is uranium – or any other metal or material — inside the explosive hemispherical shell setup, it actually interferes with the test. It would impede detecting the light flashes of the shock wave breakout. That is the reason metal is not used on the inside of a hemispherical light-timing test, contrary to what ISIS asserts above.
So the excruciating detail in paragraph 43 in the Annex of the November 2011 IAEA report, and the technically confused work by ISIS, give the illusion of technical expertise but are, in fact, irrelevant to the use of uranium – or any other metal — in a cylinder-contained test in a hemispherical geometry, such as that alleged to have taken place at Parchin.
Paragraph 43 of the IAEA report says:
43. Information provided to the Agency by the same Member State referred to in the previous paragraph describes the multipoint initiation concept referred to above as being used by Iran in at least one large scale experiment in 2003 to initiate a high explosive charge in the form of a hemispherical shell. According to that information, during that experiment, the internal hemispherical curved surface of the high explosive charge was monitored using a large number of optical fibre cables, and the light output of the explosive upon detonation was recorded with a high speed streak camera. It should be noted that the dimensions of the initiation system and the explosives used with it were consistent with the dimensions for the new payload which, according to the alleged studies documentation, were given to the engineers who were studying how to integrate the new payload into the chamber of the Shahab 3 missile re-entry vehicle (Project 111) (see Section C.11 below). Further information provided to the Agency by the same Member State indicates that the large scale high explosive experiments were conducted by Iran in the region of Marivan. [emphasis added]
What about the alleged possible full spherical geometry tests? Such mock-up tests probe the implosion on a proxy material (such as natural uranium) but would not typically be carried out in a container, as is alleged at Parchin. In fact, as the paragraph above states, “information provided to the Agency by the same Member State indicates that the large scale high explosive experiments were conducted by Iran in the region of Marivan.” But Marivan is about 500 km from Parchin. And even if the alleged spherical tests were carried out in the alleged chamber at Parchin, partial paving of one section of ground only on side of the building of interest will not help hide the evidence – such evidence, in any case, would again not be sought outside the building but inside.
Former IAEA inspector and weapons engineer, Robert Kelley, has summed up the concerns about the IAEA’s professionalism in environmental sampling:
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.
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. [emphasis added]
Let’s recall that the IAEA has already visited Parchin twice in 2005 and found nothing – although they did not go to the specific area they are now interested in. However, the IAEA could have gone to that area even in 2005 – they simply chose to go to other sites on the military base. As the IAEA report at the time summarized:
The Agency was given free access to those buildings and their surroundings and was allowed to take environmental samples, the results of which did not indicate the presence of nuclear material, nor did the Agency see any relevant dual use equipment or materials in the locations visited.
When the IAEA last went to Parchin, Olli Heinonen was head of IAEA safeguards and led the inspections – the methodology for choosing which buildings to inspect is described in an excellent Christian Science Monitor article which is worth reading in its entirety, but I quote the relevant bits:
At the time, it[Parchin] was divided into four geographical sectors by the Iranians. Using satellite and other data, inspectors were allowed by the Iranians to choose any sector, and then to visit any building inside that sector. Those 2005 inspections included more than five buildings each, and soil and environmental sampling. They yielded nothing suspicious, but did not include the building now of interest to the IAEA.
The selection [of target buildings] did not take place in advance, it took place just when we arrived, so all of Parchin was available,” recalls Heinonen, who led those past inspections. “When we drove there and arrived, we told them which building.
Would the Iranians really have risked exposing some nefarious nuclear weapons-related work at Parchin by making all of Parchin available to the IAEA in 2005? At that time, Iran had to assume that the IAEA would choose the alleged chamber building to inspect, but satellite imagery shows no effort to sanitize the site in 2005.
Also unusual is how open and specific the IAEA has been about what exactly it wants to see, which could yield doubts about the credibility of any eventual inspection.“I’m puzzled that the IAEA wants to in this case specify the building in advance, because you end up with this awkward situation,” says Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s head of safeguards until mid-2010.
“First of all, if it gets delayed it can be sanitized. And it’s not very good for Iran. Let’s assume [inspectors] finally get there and they find nothing. People will say, ‘Oh, it’s because Iran has sanitized it,’” says Mr. Heinonen, who is now at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. “But in reality it may have not been sanitized. Iran is also a loser in that case. I don’t know why [the IAEA] approach it this way, which was not a standard practice…”
Unfortunately, this is exactly what seems to be happening now: On May 29th, Reuters reported that the IAEA, “acknowledged on Wednesday it might not find anything if allowed access to an Iranian military facility [Parchin]….Herman Nackaerts, deputy director general of the IAEA, made the comment during a closed-door briefing where he showed satellite imagery indicating Iran had now partly paved the site…”
This is clearly untrue for the reasons described above: sample swipes would normally be taken from inside the building of interest, and adjacent buildings – and even if outdoors sampling was needed it could be gathered from the large undisturbed area west of the building. The IAEA appears to be laying the groundwork for a false story that if they do not find anything at Parchin, it is because Iran “sanitized” the place – whereas this is simply untrue from a technical perspective for the reasons given above. That way, even if the IAEA is allowed access to Parchin, and finds nothing, the Agency will still be free to make all the allegations they want about what went on there. So it appears, Iran will be damned if it cooperates with the Agency, and damned if it doesn’t.
IAEA members states ought not to cooperate with the Agency in ad hoc inspections unless a proper, logical and technically-sound structured approach to inspections is agreed-upon beforehand – and, until the Agency has properly explained, or retracted, its unprofessional handling of the Syrian case.
To reiterate: the partial paving work outdoors at the Parchin military base in Iran does not meaningfully interfere with the IAEA’s ability to gather any traces of man-modified uranium that may exist – especially indoors, but also outdoors.
As for the typically tendentious reporting on this topic, the words of Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA, bear repeating:
Hans Blix, former chief of the IAEA and later of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, has also expressed surprise at the focus on Parchin, as a military base that inspectors had been to before.
“Any country, I think, would be rather reluctant to let international inspectors to go anywhere in a military site,” Mr. Blix told Al Jazeera English… “In a way, the Iranians have been more open than most other countries would be.” [emphasis added]
One of the reasons that Dr. Blix says that is because normally the IAEA does not have the legal authority to inspect undeclared non-nuclear-materials related facilities, in a nation – like Iran — that has not ratified the Additional Protocol. The IAEA can choose to call for arbitration in its dispute with Iran, as specified in the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, but they have not done that. The arbitration procedure is spelled out in the safeguards agreement:
Any dispute arising out of the interpretation or application of this Agreement, except a dispute with regard to a finding by the Board under Article 19 or an action taken by the Board pursuant to such a finding, which is not settled by negotiation or another procedure agreed to by the Government of Iran and the Agency shall, at the request of either, be submitted to an arbitral tribunal composed as follows: the Government of Iran and the Agency shall each designate one arbitrator, and the two arbitrators so designated shall elect a third, who shall be the Chairman. If, within thirty days of the request for arbitration, either the Government of Iran or the Agency has not designated an arbitrator, either the Government of Iran or the Agency may request the President of the International Court of Justice to appoint an arbitrator.
The IAEA should take advantage of this clause to quickly resolve its dispute with Tehran over access to the Parchin military base. Continued IAEA deadlock over Parchin is derailing progress in the broader nuclear talks between Iran and P5+1.
Lastly, the recent report from the associated press that about 80% of the IAEA’s intelligence against Iran is from the US, only strengthens the perception of bias and politicization at the Agency. The Agency should more thoroughly vet the evidence to make sure it is of the highest quality.