Posts Tagged ‘Iran’


Elusive Centrifuges

Friday, June 1st, 2012

To round off this week of centrifuges, I thought we might actually look at a few of them. Photographs of real-life enrichment technologies are not too common. You can find quite a number of pictures floating around of Calutron (electromagnetic enrichment) technology from World War II, but that’s because the United States decided pretty early on that Calutrons weren’t too sensitive. (Rightly or wrongly; just because they are inefficient doesn’t mean they don’t work. Iraq famously pursued Calutron technology during its pre-1991 nuclear program; the major technical snag seemed to be that somebody bombed the facilities.)

But gaseous diffusion? Laser enrichment? Aerodynamic enrichment? Not so much, beyond photographs of BIG buildings or very schematic conceptual diagrams. With centrifuges, though, there are some images from a variety of time periods and sources. As I mentioned on Monday, you can find some pretty nifty Zippe-type centrifuge photographs in old research reports from the 1950s that the Department of Energy still hosts pretty accessibly. These are kind of amazing, given how they more or less disassemble the devices in what looks like a pretty helpful fashion.

“Scoop assembly for handling gas inside the rotor and parts of rotor.” (1959)

“Molecular pump and rotor.” (1959)

…and so on with the “powdered magnetic core, completed stator, and driven end of rotor showing steel plate and supporting needle,” and “upper magnetic bearing, rotor, and top of scoop assembly,” and even a nice little one of the rotors mounted up for stress testing. Interesting that these things are out there — especially when the CIA apparently decided, in 2003, that showing rotors of pre-1991 Iraqi centrifuges was too sensitive to put up on the web (after they had already put them up for awhile).

There are a few photos of URENCO centrifuge plants from Europe, but not as many as you’d think from a venture whose corporate slogan is “enriching the future.” I’m partial to this gold-tinted one that’s been floating around the web for awhile; it looks like Scrooge McDuck was the contractor (but I’m pretty sure it’s just the lighting — other images I’ve seen show them to be silvery):

It’s hard to get a sense of scale from cascade photos like this, though.

In the early 1980s, the United States’ DOE built a prototype centrifuge plant at Piketon, Ohio, but abandoned it by 1985. Much more recently (the 2000s) the private United States Enrichment Corporation took over the site and has been building a demonstration plant on it. What’s interesting about these centrifuges is that they are of a different model than the previous ones; the “American centrifuge” is a colossally large design. (The fact that they have to label them as “American” is a nice reflection of the fact mentioned on Monday that the US lost its initiative in developing centrifuges. We don’t have the “American” gaseous diffusion method or the “American” electromagnetic method.)

The 1980s Piketon photos are pretty impressive. These are from the DOE Digital Archive:

The last one really gives you the sense of scale with those suckers — they are huge!

The current Piketon plant looks pretty similar. USEC has a few photos on their own website:

I find these less inspiring, photographically, than the ones from the 1980s, but they look like the same centrifuges. The length here — some 12 meters long — is functional, and not just an example of the Supersize-Me American culture.  The “American centrifuge” is much more efficient than the other models currently being used, apparently.

Now, all of the above is sort of interesting, but is just something of a prelude for the next batch of photos. In April 2008, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made an official visit to the Natanz site, one of Iran’s controversial centrifuge facilities. Surprisingly, his office took several dozen photos of the visit and posted them on the official Presidential website. These have been a goldmine for wonky types wanting to understand Iran’s centrifuge developments, and have, of course, served as the illustrations for half a million articles about Iran and the bomb since then. A few of my favorites:

The last one I like because of a small, easy-to-miss detail: you can see one of the blue IAEA safeguard cameras above Ahmadinejad’s head. The blue box is a sealed case inside which the video camera is locked, and the closed-circuit camera feed is beamed back to IAEA headquarters in real-time (so I gather). (A correspondent e-mailed to say that at the plant in question, a pilot plant, the cameras aren’t real-time — they just stored the footage for the IAEA to pick up, which is every other week or so. I thought I had heard somewhere that they were real-time, but I can’t remember where. They do have real-time monitoring in their plants that can do up to 20% enrichment, though.)

Given how relatively few photos there are of centrifuges floating around, why did Iran post so many on its Presidential website? I think the message is pretty clear, personally: they are trying to demonstrate a lack of anything to hide. If the centrifuge program isn’t “secret,” then it isn’t scary, right?

Of course, the obvious rejoinder to this is that they are of course being selective about what they show. Such is the nature of any kind of publicity like this. You show a little, to show that you aren’t secretive, but of course, you do hold things back. Whether that holding back violates the NPT or the Additional Protocol and so forth is a question for another day. But I’m always fascinated by the theatre of “transparency,” which has — since the early days of the bomb — been part of maintaining nuclear secrecy. Secrecy has never just been about holding things back: it has always been a game of simultaneously withholding and releasing, of giving a little so you can hold back a lot.

How do we distinguish between genuine transparency and transparency in the name of secrecy? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? Because when you get it wrong, you get a situation like Iraq: trying to prove a negative (that they didn’t have active WMD programs hidden away) turned out to be an impossible job (not because it is inherently impossible, but because of the various political and organizational forces stacked against the attempt). One can distinguish between the two in retrospect — once you’ve actually dismantled the country and its programs and whatnot — but that’s disturbingly too late.


Assassination as Non-Proliferation: Historical and Sociological Thoughts

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Once again, somebody has been killing Iranian nuclear scientists. Iran blames the usual suspects (CIA, Mossad), which may be correct as far as I know. This is, according to the Times, the fourth such attack in the last two years.

As an historian, I’m struck with the fact that this is, as far as I know, a fairly novel mode of non-proliferation policy, if that is what it is indeed meant to be. I don’t want to speculate too much on the true motives of such a thing — there could be much deeper games going on here than are obvious on the surface of things. But let’s just pretend, for the sake of discussion, that it is indeed a state like Israel that is doing this with the idea of disrupting the Iranian attempts at a latent nuclear weapons capability.

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