Earlier versions of the headline accompanying this article, including in the print edition of Tuesday's Washington Post, mistakenly said the United States, not the United Nations, was questioning whether Iran has additional nuclear sites.
U.N. seeks assurances that Iran has no other hidden nuclear sites
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
U.N. nuclear experts who last month were granted a first look at Iran's newly disclosed uranium processing site have acknowledged in a confidential report that the visit raised questions about whether other secret installations exist in the country.
After its three-day inspection of the underground site, the International Atomic Energy Agency has pressed Iran to declare in writing that it has no other hidden nuclear facilities, according to a copy of the report made public Monday by a nonprofit group. The U.N. nuclear watchdog also asked Iranian officials for original blueprints for the processing facility, as well as access to engineers to verify claims that it was intended to be part of a peaceful nuclear energy program.
The demand for details stems in part from questions about the possible existence of support facilities that would have supplied uranium feedstock to the almost completed plant, which is near Qom, a Shiite Muslim holy city south of Tehran. Western intelligence analysts have been searching for other sites while also trying to divine the Iranian government's motives for constructing the heavily fortified facility, which experts say is far too small to supply fuel for a nuclear power reactor.
U.N. inspectors did reveal after their first visit to the site that Iran was well on its way to finishing the facility when its existence was disclosed in late September. Workers had already installed water and electrical lines and most of the supporting infrastructure for 3,000 centrifuge machines, which can convert uranium gas into both the nuclear fuel used to produce electricity and the fissile material used in nuclear weapons, the document said.
The centrifuges had not been installed, and no uranium has been enriched, said the report, which was obtained by the nonprofit group Institute for Science and International Security and posted on its Web site. IAEA inspectors were allowed unfettered access to the site and collected environmental samples to test for nuclear material, it said.
Iran told the IAEA that the site, built in bunkers in a mountain, was meant to be a backup facility that could process uranium in the event of a military attack on Iran's much larger enrichment plant near the city of Natanz. Tehran insists that its nuclear program is strictly peaceful.
But after the inspection, the U.N. agency "still had questions about the purpose for which the facility had been intended and how it fit into Iran's nuclear program," said the report, prepared in advance of a meeting of the IAEA's board of governors later this month.
"The Agency also indicated that Iran's declaration of the new facility reduces the level of confidence in the absence of other nuclear facilities under construction and gives rise to questions about whether there were any other nuclear facilities in Iran which had not been declared to the Agency," the report said.
Further underscoring concerns about continued concealment, the report said U.N. inspectors had found 600 barrels of a substance known as heavy water -- used in some types of nuclear reactors -- at facility near the town of Esfahan. The heavy water was not produced by Iran, and the report suggests that it was imported secretly, said David Albright, a former IAEA inspector and president of ISIS. The discovery "again raises questions whether Iran has declared all its nuclear facilities and materials," he said.
Iranian officials reacted generally positively to the report. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, called the report "encouraging" because it shows Tehranis fully cooperating with the atomic agency, the state-run, Arabic-language television news channel al-Alam reported Monday. "It said that Iran has allowed and facilitated access to inspectors and that there were no nuclear materials in the new facility," Soltanieh said.
Responding to questions about the agency's announcement of more inspections and its request for further clarifications, Soltanieh said Iran will comply.
"The IAEA has the right to ask questions and our role is to answer them," he said.
Western intelligence agencies and independent nuclear analysts have questioned whether the Qom facility -- known in Iran as the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Site -- was ever intended to produce fuel for nuclear power reactors. Designed to hold just 3,000 centrifuges, the facility would have to operate continuously for two decades to make enough low-enriched uranium to fuel a typical nuclear power reactor for one year. But if configured differently, the same machines could supply Iran with enough weapons-grade uranium to make up to three bombs a year.
U.N. officials also sparred with Iran when work started on the facility. While Iran continued to assert that the project began in the second half of 2007, the IAEA presented Iranian officials with evidence showing that design work on the enrichment plant began in 2006. Tunneling at the mountainous site was begun in 2002 and was suspended in 2004 before resuming two years later, the agency found.
The discrepancy could set up a fight at the upcoming IAEA meeting, in which the United States and European powers are expected to argue that Iran violated international treaty obligations by keeping its nuclear plans secret. If Iran is found to have broken the rules, it could be referred to the U.N. Security Council for a new round of sanctions.
"They are sticking to a grossly improbable story," said Joshua Pollack, a security consultant who writes about nuclear proliferation for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Erdbrink reported from Tehran.