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The Washington Independent

How Do We Know There Are Only 3000 Centrifuges At Qom?

Elisa Mueller
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Sep 29, 2009

More from the “size and configuration” files regarding Iran’s heretofore-concealed nuclear facility at Qom. You’ll recall on Friday the Obama administration stated in a background briefing for reporters that it believed Qom was “designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuge machines.” That was a key piece of evidence for the case that the facility is probably unsuited for a commercial nuclear program, a strong-but-not-airtight case. But the 3,000-centrifuge total didn’t come from any disclosure to the International Atomic Energy Agency. It came from intelligence collection.

Ivanka Barzashka of the Federation of American Scientists emailed me to say that we can’t verify that statement independently yet.

Until Iran submits design information to the IAEA, the Administration’s statement cannot be verified. The good news here is that Iran has announced the facility (although it is unclear if it decided to do so because the cat was already out of the bag) and has said that it would comply fully with the IAEA. Unfortunately, as cool as ISIS’ satellite photos are, they only show tunnel entrances in a mountain (there are many of those around that area, if you play around on Google Earth). Moreover, the locations are just guesses based on information that has been disseminated by the media. We cannot tell much about the number and type of centrifuges that will be installed at Qom from the ISIS satellite imagery.

What might we look for to draw the 3,000-centrifuge inference? Barzashka:

How could the administration know that Iran is installing 3,000 machines? One way would be to compare the area of the Qom facility to that of the enrichment plant at Natanz. Centrifuges do not take up a lot of space and if you knew the average area per cascade, you could approximate how many machines can fit in a given space. You can come up with an estimate for the size of the facility based on the amount of rock that the Iranians are throwing out (if they are digging a hole in a mountain, they have to dispose of the material somewhere). You can tell something about the size also if you knew how much explosive they used to blast the hole. There is no way to know that a particular tunnel will be used to house centrifuges until you have more information provided by other sources. You can also consider the power lines that are going inside the facility. Still, the conclusion is that we cannot independently verify this information.

That’s a task for Thursday’s P5+1 meeting in Geneva, when the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China will demand full IAEA access to the facility under threat of sanctions. Ivanka has a great, informative blog post going through more of the ambiguities surrounding Qom.

Elisa Mueller | Elisa Mueller was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a mother who taught reading and a father who taught film. As a result, she spent an excessive amount of her childhood reading books and watching movies. She went to the University of Kansas for college, where she earned bachelor's degrees in English and journalism. She moved to New York City and worked for Entertainment Weekly magazine for ten years, visiting film sets all over the world.


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