Elephant Not in the Room: Whither the Mythological Parchin Explosion Chamber?Posted: October 2, 2015
Another great guest post by friend of ACL, Dr. Yousaf Butt, on the technical implications of the findings of the IAEA when Agency inspectors finally visited the site at Parchin that they’ve been angling to visit for years.
Elephant Not in the Room: Whither the Mythological Parchin Explosion Chamber?
By: Yousaf Butt
Dr. Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is senior scientific advisor to the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in London. The views expressed here are his own.
Many reporters and non-proliferation experts have been busy lately arguing over the protocols used for taking samples at the Parchin military site in Iran. They may have missed the elephant in the room. This might be excusable since there is no elephant in the room: the enormous explosion chamber that was supposed to be there was not seen by the IAEA in their latest visit to their latest building of interest at Parchin.
As all hardcore Parchin fans know, the IAEA had visited the site twice before and also found nothing suspicious in – or even around – the other buildings they had previously been interested in. Three strikes and you’re out? Well, not quite: one ought to wait for the results of the sampling before passing final judgment on whether nuclear materials were used at Parchin and whether possible safeguards violations may have occurred.
However, it seems fairly clear by now that the intel supplied to the IAEA regarding the chamber was flawed. Regardless of whether the sampling results end up being positive or not, there is no chamber at Parchin at any of the multiple locations deduced from the intel fed to the Agency by some unknown third-party.
Could the huge chamber have been cut-up and sneaked out as some people at a DC-based NGO have insisted? As Robert Kelley – a former head of the DoE Remote Sensing Laboratory at Nellis Air Force Base and a former IAEA inspections director – explains in a recent SIPRI release, the answer is a firm “No” — because of continuous satellite monitoring:
“A removal operation would be obvious to an observer using panchromatic satellite imaging, supplemented by Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and many forms of multi-spectral imaging.”
To those of us who have been examining the scientific quality of some of the allegations against Iran the non-existence of the mythological chamber has not come as a big surprise: it may well be that the same country that fed the bogus and amateurishly-flawed Associated Press graphs to the IAEA, also fed the now-debunked Parchin chamber story.
As Robert Kelley recaps, there were multiple failures of competence in the 2011 IAEA Annex report that made the Parchin allegations in the first place. Most glaringly, there is no need for an explosion chamber if the aim of the chamber was nuclear-weapons related in the first place: “Claims about the purpose of the alleged experiments at Parchin are not consistent with the logic of nuclear weapons design and testing.”
Apart from the latest Parchin report, non-proliferation experts and reporters would be well-advised to do their due-diligence and read the compendium of expert SIPRI reports written by Robert Kelley and his colleague Tariq Rauf – the former Head of Verification and Security Policy Coordination at the IAEA.
A puzzling question persists, however: If the chamber never existed and there’s no big nefarious deal at Parchin why then were the Iranians so insistent to lead the latest swipe-sampling inspections themselves? It’s uncertain of course, but it may be related to the reports that the IAEA mishandled the Syria investigation and so Iran perhaps wanted to ensure that that is not repeated at Parchin.
The upshot of all this is that the IAEA should stick to doing nuclear materials accountancy and not delve into nuclear weaponization investigations, until its mandate and expertise is broadened to include such activities.