Iran's nuclear disclosures: why they matter
A secret nuclear site. ‘Project 110.’ Offers to ship fuel abroad. Part of Iran’s quest to be regional power?
Gas centrifuges are an amazing technology. They're thin metal tubes that stand upright, about as tall as a fifth-grader, and spin on magnetic bearings that are virtually frictionless. They revolve so fast that when they're filled with uranium hexafluoride gas, the compound separates into isotopes of different atomic weights, with the heavier isotope pushed to the outside by centrifugal force.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
They're hard to get running right. Vibration can be a problem, so they must be tuned, a little like guitars. But once an array of centrifuges is humming along, it needs little maintenance. They are a great way to enrich uranium to the point it can be used in a nuclear reactor – or a nuclear bomb.
All this is by way of explanation as to why recent revelations about Iran's hidden centrifuge plant at Qom are so important to the future balance of power in perhaps the most volatile region in the world.
News about Iran's nuclear program has abounded in recent weeks. There was Qom, then allegations that Iran has a secret bomb-design program called "Project 110," and Tehran's surprise offer to perhaps send low-enriched uranium abroad to be turned into reactor fuel.
These and other recent events hint that the pace and complexity of Iran's nuclear program may have increased. Now, Iranian leaders may – or may not – want the bomb. But it seems clear that Tehran wants to develop into a regional power, meaning that time could be short for the United States and its allies to engage with a rising threat in an area crucial to both global energy production and the future of Islam.
"Iran presents the most serious single security challenge in the Middle East," writes Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in a just-published book on the implications of Iran's weapons programs.
US had been looking for a covert facility
Seen in satellite photos, the newly revealed Iranian facility near Qom looks as if it could be a Wal-Mart, a school, or a factory. But it's intended to house about 3,000 gas centrifuges, according to both Iranian and US officials. In terms of uranium-enrichment capability, that would make it a modest plant.
But to many US proliferation experts, Qom represents the danger of a second fuel cycle foretold. That's because Iran already has a large centrifuge farm, near Natanz. There, it has 8,300 installed centrifuges, though only about half are actually enriching uranium. It is big enough to house 54,000, according to the US.
Natanz itself was revealed to the world by an Iranian dissident group in 2002. Iran says the facility is intended to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) for use in nuclear power reactors. Today it is under scrutiny by Western intelligence services and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, and many experts say it would be difficult for Iran to divert enough LEU from the Natanz production line to produce bomb-grade uranium elsewhere.