Nuclear Plant in Iranian Desert Emerges as Flash Point in Talks
By WILLIAM J. BROADAPRIL 3, 2015
The site looms up from the Iranian desert like something out of a thriller novel, ringed by antiaircraft batteries, a security perimeter two miles around, and huge tunnels that lead deep into the mountainous complex.
Welcome to Fordo. Once a covert site of Iran’s sprawling nuclear program, then a closely monitored uranium enrichment plant, it is now a flash point in this week’s preliminary nuclear deal between the West and Tehran. The question is whether the proposed conversion of the site to a peaceful research center will prove effective or instead produce an illusion that eventually aids Iran’s pursuit of an atom bomb.
Fordo — some 20 miles from the holy city of Qum, deep inside an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base — came to public attention in 2009 when President Obama announced its existence.
The secret plant, Mr. Obama said, “represents a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime.” The Iranians, he added, “are going to have to come clean.”
The Nonproliferation Treaty allows no secret work that could have application to the making of nuclear warheads. But inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency soon discovered that the Iranians planned to fill the cavernous halls with row upon row of centrifuges — tall machines that spin very fast to concentrate the rare form of uranium that fuels reactors and bombs.
By late 2011, Iran had installed hundreds of centrifuges at Fordo and had begun enriching uranium to 20 percent, just shy of bomb purity. By 2012, the number of centrifuges at the underground plant had soared to more than 2,700, though only 696 were in use.
The deep site represented a bold move in Iran’s war of nerves with the West. So much rock covered the enrichment halls that they could withstand all but the most powerful bombs. And Tehran, whenever it wanted, could throw another 2,000 centrifuges into enrichment.
In 2012, at the United Nations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel identified a “red line” beyond which he said Iran must not be allowed to pass: when it had enough purified uranium to quickly make a single nuclear weapon.
In late 2013, the negotiations began on limiting Iran’s nuclear program and lifting economic sanctions, and Tehran agreed to stop purifying uranium to 20 percent at Fordo, immediately reducing the danger of rapidly crossing the red line. Instead, enrichment would be kept to less than 5 percent, a concentration often used in generating electricity.
Many nuclear experts and American officials expected that the negotiations would end with Fordo’s complete dismantlement. David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington research group that monitors Iran’s nuclear program, wrote early last year that “a key demand will be that this site close down.”
But the preliminary deal announced in Switzerland on Thursday instead calls for the site’s conversion exclusively to peaceful research. Iran has agreed to forgo enriching uranium at Fordo for at least 15 years, and to conduct no research there on new enrichment gear. The proposed deal also calls for the removal of “almost two-thirds of Fordo’s centrifuges and infrastructure.”
R. Scott Kemp, a centrifuge expert at M.I.T. who formerly worked at the State Department and Princeton, hailed the overall deal as “a remarkable achievement” but said Fordo could be a spoiler.
Since the deal allows the retention of roughly 1,000 centrifuges in the site’s underground halls, and says nothing about forbidding the installation of highly advanced ones so long as they do no uranium enrichment, the site might eventually pose a danger, Dr. Kemp argued on the website of the M.I.T. Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy.
He said Fordo thus configured might enable Iran to acquire the fuel for a bomb in as little as three months; the Obama administration has sought to lengthen the so-called breakout time to at least one year.
The retained centrifuges, Dr. Kemp wrote, “could be rapidly repurposed for enriching uranium under a breakout scenario” unless they were specifically designed to be incompatible with such purification.
He said that between now and late June, when negotiators are to complete the nuclear accord, they will face “the difficult task” of ensuring that centrifuges at Fordo are “physically incapable of uranium enrichment.”
An alternative, he added, would be restrictions on the number and type of centrifuges allowed.
“If this oversight is addressed,” Dr. Kemp said, the rest of the deal would “lengthen the breakout time to about one year.”