by Ronen Bergman
The following existential question is likely to perturb every citizen in Israel: Within a certain period of time, Ali Khamenei, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and the other senior members of the regime of ayatollahs will have the capability to press the red button and carry out some of the terrifying declarations that are coming from Tehran if they decide it is the appropriate moment. So although no one can give an undertaking as to the specific day in which this will happen, one thing is certain: Iran is not wasting a moment, nor abandoning any path en route to the nuclear finishing line, and in the last few months has even been accelerating its activities.
Updated satellite photographs that have been acquired by 7 Yamim, and which are published here for the first time, reveal unprecedented construction at all nuclear sites in Iran. Among other things, the imagery reveals extensive construction work going on at the centrifuge site at Natnaz, including tunnels and bunkers; significant progress in building the heavy-water reactor in Arak; production of UF6 gas in Isfahan which, according to intelligence reports, is supposed to be enough for two atom bombs; and worrying information has also been received on advanced tests of a high-powered explosive that is designed for use in the fission mechanism.
Along with all these things, if anyone still has any doubts about the seriousness of Iranian intentions, the satellite photos reveal the deployment of numerous antiaircraft missile batteries, in a way that is perhaps unprecedented, around the nuclear sites. European intelligence information also points to the presence of Iranian scientists at the recent nuclear test in North Korea. All these things leave no room for doubt that Iran is closer than ever before to putting together the first Shiite atomic bomb.
In the last three months, including during the war in Lebanon, satellite imagery analysts in the Israeli intelligence community, like their colleagues in the international community, have noted a number of changes at the nuclear sites in Iran. The spy satellites were focused on these sites and photographed them repeatedly. The pictures left no room for doubt: Iran is accelerating its nuclear program at a number of sites simultaneously. But that is not all. In the months in question, Iran launched a process of deploying antiaircraft missile batteries around the nuclear sites and replacing the existing technology with Russian S-300 missiles, which are regarded as the most advanced.
Indeed, satellite imagery acquired by 7 Yamim and specially analyzed for this article by Tim Brown, a US expert in military satellite imagery decipherment, reveal that the Iranians are making considerable and particularly rapid progress in producing a bomb. What also emerges is the extent to which the Iranians fear a possible attack on these sites. For example, no less than 26 antiaircraft positions were recently photographed around the centrifuge site at Natnaz, which does not cover a particularly large area. According to experts in Israel, there are few sites in the world that receive such dense protection.
It seems that the most annoying thing in the context of the Iranian nuclear program is the approach of the IAEA. Although Iran is caught lying over and over again; although it admits to actions that blatantly violate the Geneva NPT Treaty; although there is a whole string of issues between it and the IAEA on which IAEA experts say that it has not provided even the beginning of satisfactory answers; although it repeatedly threatens to put a stop to the supervision; and although it bars the inspectors access to some of the sites, to experts, and to know-how — IA EA Director Dr Muhammad al-Barad’i, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, is insisting on drafting a very watered-down of his conclusions and recommendations on the matter. True, even if the Egyptian Al-Barad’i was firmer, the United States would still insist on putting together an international coalition to impose strict sanctions on Iran, but it is clear that more incisive statements from him, as are called for by the facts, would provide the United States with operative ammunition and push Russia and China, which are close to Iran, iinto a corner. By acting the way he is doing, Al-Barad’i is providing these countries with the excuse to continue to sit on the fence and do business with Iran behind everyone’s back.
Take the site at Parchin, for example, where the Iranians are working on the warhead itself. According to information that has reached the West and been passed to the IAEA, a group of Iranian scientists, working under Department 105 of the local Ministry of Defense, are conducting experiments here on the timed detonation of conventional high-powered explosives, called high explosives, which form the "explosive lens." The aim is to generate the beginning of a chain reaction that will lead to a nuclear explosion. In order to create the desired effect, all the charges around the bomb’s core must be exploded exactly at the same split second. Al-Barad’i’s people, who are supposed to have the authority to visit any site they want, tried to get to Parchin a number of times but on each occasion they were warded off by Iranian intelligence. When the inspection finally took place, it was made in stringent conditions, with the inspectors not being allowed to go where they wanted. Despite this, the inspectors found a high-speed camera designed to document timed explosions. Yet the Parchin issue receives only a muted mention from Al-Barad’i, along with the comment that no suspicious findings were discovered except for a camera.
An analysis of the satellite photos published here reveals that extensive construction work has also been going on in Parchin recently. The photos reveal a series of underground tunnels and digging whose enormous scale is indicated by the amounts of earth dug up. The photos also show the area to which IAEA inspectors were not permitted access: special chambers that are used to test the assembly of a nuclear warhead’s explosives. Identical chambers were photographed over the years close to facilities where the Soviet Union developed and manufactured its nuclear warheads. [passage omitted]
Spy 450 Km High
Until 1999, the satellite photos attached to this article were the wet dream of anyone without access to one of the Western intelligence agencies. Until then, high-quality imagery was the sole preserve of intelligence officials who controlled spy satellites. There were a few civilian satellites, but they took poor-quality photographs.
In 1999, the Ikonos satellite was launched into space. Ikonos was the first commercial spy satellite. The system was built by Lockheed-Martin, and it is operated by Space Imaging. Ikonos, which is today called GeoEye, can identify objects on the ground that are 1 meter in size or larger so long as they are far from other objects and possess unique visual characteristics.
In 2002, the DigitalGlobe satellite was launched into space, and it cruises at a height of 450 km from the ground. The satellite is capable of identifying objects 60 cm and upward in size — a capability equal to the most advanced military spy satellites. Use was made of DigitalGlobe for these photos, and it also provided the photos in 2002, at the request of Yedi’ot Aharonot, that showed the uranium-enrichment facility in Isfahan.
The analysis of the photos for Yedi’ot Aharonot was undertaken by Tim Brown, who is regarded as one of the best-known decoders of satellite imagery in the U nited State s. In 1999, Brown, who works as an analyst on many television programs in the United States, together with John Pike, founded Global Security, a company that runs the Public Eye satellite-imagery analysis project.
Brown serves as a senior researcher for globalsecurity.org, the site operated by the company, which is regarded as one of the most popular and high-quality site in the world on military, intelligence, and nonconventional weapon issues.
The main requirements in producing a plutonium bomb are uranium, a heavy-water reactor, heavy water, and a separation facility. The preparation involves the radiation of metal-wrapped uranium rods in channels immersed in heavy water to start a chain reaction and electricity production. A new material, called plutonium, is generated in this process. In effect, plutonium is the waste produced, and in order to continue generating electricity, it must be cleaned from the rods. Note that the plutonium is not thrown away. It must be removed from the rods in a chemical process called separation, and this is done in a separation facility. It is from the plutonium that the core of an atom bomb can be produced.
The final stage involves fashioning the material into a spherical shape and assembling it in a special apparatus, a "bomb lens," which will generate the start of a chain reaction. The chain effect is achieved by means of the simultaneous explosion of many explosive charges assembled around the sphere.
Enriched Uranium Bomb
The main requirements in producing an enriched uranium bomb are raw uranium, fluoride, and centrifuges. The preparation involves reactors for raw, natural uranium, and through a not particularly complex chemical process, the uranium is turned into a material called "yellow cake," a compound of uranium and fluoride. After that, in a process called "conversion," the "yellow cake" is turned into UF6 gas.
At the enrichment stage, which is the hardest and most important of all, the gas is fed into the centrifuges which are connected in what is called a "cascade." Note: If a total of 3,000 centrifuges are connected to each other, a sufficient amount of bomb-quality enriched uranium is produced. The enriched gas is converted into a solid material in a simple chemical process, and the core of a bomb is manufactured from it.
The final stage is exactly the same as that in the plutonium bomb process.
[Description of Source: Tel Aviv Yedi’ot Aharonot in Hebrew — Independent, centrist, largest circulation Hewbew language paper]