That uranium conversion facility at Esfahan? Not a priority target
posted at 1:51 pm on November 30, 2011 by J.E. Dyer
I’m posting a comment on this because a UK Times reporter has reported being told by Israeli intelligence that the explosion that rocked Esfahan on Monday damaged the compound with the uranium conversion facility (UCF). (The Times article is reprinted at The Australian.)
The first affirmative quote offered in the article is in this sentence:
Israeli intelligence officials told The Times that there was “no doubt” that the blast struck the nuclear facilities at Isfahan and that it was “no accident.”
Later, an Israeli intelligence source is quoted as follows:
“This caused damage to the facilities in Isfahan, particularly to the elements we believe were involved in storage of raw materials,” said one military intelligence source.
The Times author speaks of satellite imagery showing billowing smoke and damage to the UCF compound. This is believable, but a few comments are in order.
First, I don’t know of anyone who has suggested the explosion was an accident, other than an Iranian official or two. If it was not a fuel-based explosion, however, it had to be a very large bomb – something approximating the 3200kg explosive capacity of the Oklahoma City bomb in 1995, or even greater – to generate the window-breaking blast experienced miles away in Esfahan.
Again, a reminder: the materials being stored or processed at the site could not have caused such an explosion. If I saw what the Israeli intelligence sources reportedly saw, I would conclude that someone probably detonated a bomb at the UCF.
I would not, however, conclude that it was done by a Western government agency. There are two reasons for this, both of which I mentioned on Monday. First, the UCF at Esfahan is simply not a priority target in the nuclear network. It is important, yes, but not worth hitting before anything else – and not worth sending Iranian internal security to high warble over. Hitting this target , by itself, just doesn’t justify the blowback. Western governments make their targeting decisions based on criteria that would put the Esfahan UCF several notches down the list of things that need to be struck in November 2011. It’s a workhorse facility in the fissile-material production network, and it’s already done what needs to be done to assemble an arsenal of multiple weapons. Uranium conversion is also “mastered technology”; Iran can reconstitute it relatively quickly.
(Notably, the series of explosion at IRGC/government facilities to date has not systematically targeted the critical nodes of the nuclear network. From a step back, it doesn’t look like an organized campaign to take the network down.)
If hitting the UCF is basically closing the barn door after the cows have gotten out, it also creates a serious risk of releasing contaminants into the atmosphere. It’s not clear what the Israeli intelligence source meant in saying that the damage caused was “particularly to the elements we believe were involved in storage of raw materials,” but that does raise the spectre of atmospheric reaction with a release of UF6 (or UF4, which may also be stored in some quantity). See my earlier piece for a link on the contamination threat from a release of UF6.
These factors mean that any decision by a Western government to strike the UCF at Esfahan would be made only in a very different context. Esfahan would be on the short list of targets to be struck in a campaign to destroy the important nodes in Iran’s nuclear network, but an accountable government would only attack this facility as part of a larger campaign, and in a situation of grave urgency: one that justified imperilling the population of Esfahan, Iran’s third-largest city.
Striking one-off targets on an as-available basis would drive a government-orchestrated campaign to a different top priority. What needs interdicting, right now, today, is Iran’s weaponization program. That program is not being pursued at the baseline Esfahan UCF compound (and certainly not in the raw-materials storage area there. If elements of the weaponization program are housed at Esfahan, it’s probably in the tunnels that were started in 2004-5).
The size of the blast – in the absence of a large fuel depot in the vicinity – indicates the explosion was created deliberately, and if the damage was mainly at a particular area of the UCF, then it would have been generated by a large bomb, set by direct, on-the-ground placement. It is extremely unlikely that a Western government did it. Eventually there will be commercial satellite imagery available to confirm where the damage was done and what kind it is.