neutron activation

Parchin Asphalt: Obstructing Sampling or Sealing the Record?

With the opportunity for significant progress in negotiating a peaceful settlement regarding Iran’s nuclear activities looking better than it has in a long time, I had intended to ignore the latest bleating over developments at Parchin. The complaints did even make their way into the New York Times earlier in the week, so they probably do deserve a response.

Here is how David Albright and pals frame the latest developments:

Recent commercial satellite imagery of the Parchin site in Iran shows the extent of new paving as well as the extent of other alternations undertaken at the site over the past year and a half starting in February 2012.  Iran appears to be in the final stages of modifying the suspected high explosive test site at the Parchin complex, having recently asphalted large sections of the site.  As noted in several of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) quarterly Iran safeguards reports and in numerous ISIS satellite imagery reports on Parchin, asphalting and the other documented activities have significantly changed the site and impacted the ability of IAEA inspectors to collect environmental samples and other evidence that it could use to determine whether nuclear weapons-related activities once took place there.  Asphalting an entire area in this manner would make it very hard to take soil samples and likely be effective at covering up environmental evidence of nuclear weaponization-related experiments.

Throughout this process of cat and mouse games with Iran over their work at the Parchin site, I have maintained that if the work Iran is accused of carrying out there did indeed take place, and if they have attempted clean-up procedures as accused, there still is a reasonable chance that appropriate sampling of the equipment and the area would detect vestiges of the radioactivity that cannot be removed. In addition to the interior of the suspect building and the blast chamber itself likely being made radioactive due to neutron activation throughout the entire thickness of the steel (and thus unable to be scrubbed), satellite imagery has been used to document what appeared to be potential wash water being allowed to run outside the building of main interest. There has been movement of some soil, but the likely deposition site of that soil has been documented in the satellite photos.

Throughout all of this activity, the satellite photos have provided a record from which a team would know the most likely sites to sample if they wish to know how much radioactivity may have been washed out of the building. This latest accusation that paving the site over with asphalt would make sampling harder simply rings hollow. A team that has been allowed access to the site would hardly find a layer of asphalt to be a significant obstruction if they are determined to sample the locations that satellite imagery has told them should be an informative location for sampling.

Paving the area with asphalt actually has the potential to preserve the site for sampling in the future. Although Parchin is in desert with little rainfall, percolation of water through the soil would remain as one the largest factors making sampling less informative over time. Asphalt paving has been used (pdf) to seal areas against movement of radioactivity through soil: Continue reading

Breaking: Albright Discovers That After Covering Buildings at Parchin With Pink Tarps, Iranians Now Removing Tarps!

Alternative representation of Iran moving pink tarpaulins around at the Parchin military site. (Detail from a photo by azkid2It on Flickr under Creative Commons license)

It seemed that David Albright and his Institute for Science and International Security had reached a new low when on August 24 they wowed the world with their analytical powers by explaining to us the meaning of Iran draping buildings at the disputed Parchin military site with pink tarpaulins. Yesterday, Albright and associates did their best to keep the Pink Panic at Parchin going, as they breathlessly revealed that Iran is now actually REMOVING THE TARPS!

As I have maintained all along, if Iran has carried out work at this site to develop a neutron trigger based on high explosives, as they have been accused, then the steel chamber in which the work was carried out is quite likely to have been rendered radioactive through the process of neutron activation and no amount of cleaning the chamber or the surrounding building or surrounding soil can hide that. That means that the tarps themselves (along with the earlier soil-moving exercises) have been a feint to give Albright and the press something to chase while those who favor an attack on Iran continue to agitate for “action”. We see from the most recent photos that the building in which the explosives chamber is believed to be housed still stands after the tarp has been removed from its roof. Should inspectors gain access to the site, their primary objective remains unchanged from pre-tarp days. They first need to determine if the chamber is still inside the building. If the chamber is still present, they need to examine it for evidence of neutron activation or any other radioactive contamination arising from the research the Iranians have been accused of carrying out.

Albright Attempts to Deflect Neutron Activation Issue at Parchin

On May 15, I pointed out that the claims associated with the cartoon published by George Jahn of AP purporting to depict a high explosives chamber used by Iran at Parchin (this is a new link for the cartoon, the AP link in the May 15 post no longer works for me) and in a report by David Albright claiming that Iran has taken actions aimed at cleansing the Parchin site were rendered baseless by the likelihood that if the accused work on a neutron initiator for a nuclear weapon had indeed been carried out at Parchin, then the chamber would be rendered radioactive throughout the thickness of its steel by the process of neutron activation. Yesterday, Albright published even more photos of the Parchin site that he claims document further cleansing activity and in the discussion section of his report he finally addressed the issue of neutron activation. In order to make the issue of neutron activation go away, Albright is now proposing that  the uranium deuteride presumed to be present in the explosion would produce too low a flux of neutrons to produce appreciable neutron activation of the chamber’s steel, even though Jahn is claiming that the Iranians placed a neutron detector outside the chamber, presumably to measure the neutron flux that passed through its steel walls.

Here is the relevant portion of a 2009 report by Albright describing the neutron initiator:

If the data in this document are correct and the descriptions of the work are accurate, then this report appears to be describing a plan to further develop and test a critical component of a nuclear weapon, specifically a neutron initiator made out of uranium deuteride (UD3), which when finished (and subsequently manufactured) would most likely be placed at the center of a fission bomb made from weapon-grade uranium. This type of initiator works by the high explosives compressing the nuclear core and the initiator, producing a spurt of neutrons as a result of fusion in D-D reactions. The neutrons flood the core of weapon-grade uranium and initiate the chain reaction.

Albright goes on to describe the issue of producing neutrons and measuring their production:

The measurement of the neutrons emitted by this UD3 source would be the hardest measurement Iran would need to make in developing a nuclear weapon. This assumes that Iran believes it cannot do a full-scale nuclear test, although it would be expected to do a “cold test” of the full device as a way to gain confidence the nuclear weapon would perform as expected. . . The timing of the explosion and resulting shock waves would need to be perfect in order to get enough fusion to create a spurt of neutrons in a reliable manner at exactly the right instant. The experiment itself is very difficult to do. There are relatively few neutrons emitted in a brief period of time and there is a lot of noise from the electronics that interferes with the neutron measurements.

It should be noted here that although Albright is discussing a “cold test”, that means the test is carried out without the weapons grade uranium which the initiator sets off in the nuclear explosion. The uranium deuteride is still present as the primary part of the initiator and is producing the neutrons which are to be measured. Although Albright does claim that few neutrons are produced in the explosion in the latter part of the description, he refers to a “spurt” of neutrons that “flood” the weapons grade uranium in the earlier portion. The fact remains that in such an experiment, significant quantities of uranium are present and there would be neutrons released into the steel of the chamber the entire time the uranium is present, not just during the brief explosion.

As further support for the uranium deuteride initiator being the primary focus of the narrative promoted by Albright and Jahn, it should be kept in mind that Jahn mentions that the chamber is “equipped with” “a neutron detection system outside the explosion chamber to measure neutron emissions”. Jahn goes on to quote another expert who posits the use of uranium in the experiments with explosives: Continue reading

Parchin Game of Cat and Mouse Escalates: Razed Buildings, Earthmoving Probably Don’t Affect Controversial Chamber

For a brief period yesterday afternoon, initial news reports had me thinking that perhaps proof had finally emerged that Iran has indeed carried out work on a nuclear weapon and was taking actions in an attempt to hide the after-effects of that work. As new details emerged, however, it became more clear that an elaborate game of cat and mouse is being played out between Iran and those who accuse them of weapon development, but overall there still seems to be no conclusive proof that weapon development at the controversial Parchin site has been carried out.

That is a pattern that has played out several times now. “Diplomats” provide anonymous information to a reporter in Vienna on new accusations about nuclear weapon development work in Iran. The first version of the story put out by the reporter contains only a vague accusation but is delivered with a sensationalized headline suggesting that new and important evidence supports the conclusion that Iran is carrying out work at Parchin aimed at developing a neutron trigger device for a nuclear weapon . Subsequent expansion of the article reveals that the “evidence” is much weaker than initially portrayed and that technical details tend to contradict the accusations for the large part.

Until yesterday, that pattern had played itself out three times since March, each with George Jahn of AP playing the role of the reporter in Vienna. First, there was the claim in March that Iran was trying to clean the Parchin site to remove evidence of work on a trigger device. It took several weeks after the initial claim, but finally a satellite image purporting to show evidence of “washing” the building at Parchin was produced in early May when David Albright displayed satellite images showing puddles in the parking lot outside the suspect building. Of course, Albright’s claim of “washing” away the radioactivity is ludicrous, as traces would remain, especially if the wash water is simply allowed to pool in the parking lot of the building. Albright and Jahn did not give up, however, and Jahn subsequently came up with a cartoon depicting the chamber (it’s even the same color as the real chamber!). The huge hole in those accusations, though, is that if the accused neutron trigger work with uranium were indeed being carried out at Parchin, then the process of neutron activation would have resulted in both the structural steel of the chamber itself and most likely the structural steel of the building housing the chamber being radioactive throughout the thicknesses of the steel. This would mean that Albright’s claims that Iran could “cleanse” the chamber and the building by grinding and washing surfaces were impossible. Instead, in order to clean the site:

The only way that Iran would be able to hide evidence of work on a neutron trigger device at Parchin would be to dismantle and remove the entire chamber. It most likely would be necessary to raze the entire building as well, since the structural steel in the building surrounding the chamber also likely would have been made radioactive by the neutrons.

Jahn’s third sensational headline followed by less sensational details related to the finding of traces of uranium enriched to 27% rather than 20% at the enrichment site at Qom instead of at Parchin, but this still fits the overall pattern.

Another aspect of attempts to clean evidence of work with radioactivity is removal of the upper layers of soil.

Yesterday, Fredrik Dahl of Reuters took over George Jahn’s role as the reporter in Vienna to release a sensational headline only for the real story to fall short of the accusations (apologies to Jahn for my initial–now deleted–tweets on this revelation, which I attributed to him when I reacted first to the headline and only later noticed the story was from Dahl and not Jahn). I have counted at least five versions of Dahl’s story as it was updated through the day yesterday and this morning. Here is complete article as it appeared in its initial form: Continue reading

George Jahn Once Again Grants Anonymity for Dubious Iran Accusation

Just under two weeks ago, AP’s George Jahn released the infamous cartoon around which he built a dubious nest of mostly anonymous charges that Iran had conducted work toward developing a neutron trigger device for nuclear weapons, using an explosive containment chamber at the Parchin military site. Jahn further repeated anonymous claims from “diplomats” that satellite imagery showed activity claimed to be Iran “cleaning” the site to remove traces of radioactivity.

It is simply impossible to “clean” radioactivity from a steel chamber in which uranium has been used to generate neutrons, as the neutrons would result in making the entire thickness of the steel chamber radioactive, as I showed in this post. The only way that Iran would be able to hide evidence of work on a neutron trigger device at Parchin would be to dismantle and remove the entire chamber. It most likely would be necessary to raze the entire building as well, since the structural steel in the building surrounding the chamber also likely would have been made radioactive by the neutrons.

Since negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries will continue next month in Moscow, those who prefer a war with Iran now must find new areas in which to accuse Iran of weapons work. George Jahn dutifully stepped up to play his role in this process again today, granting anonymity to “diplomats” who make a vague accusation that Jahn dressed up into a highly sensational headline that is backed up by few facts and then rendered essentially meaningless when he goes further into the information. At the AP’s site, Jahn’s article carries the headline “APNewsBreak: Higher enrichment at Iranian site“. The Washington Post decided that headline wasn’t incendiary enough, and so their version reads “APNewsBreak: Diplomats say UN experts find enrichment at Iranian site closer to arms level“.

The story itself is quite short. It opens:

 Diplomats say the U.N. nuclear agency has found traces of uranium at Iran’s underground atomic site enriched to higher than previous levels and closer to what is needed for nuclear weapons.

Wait a minute. This whole thing is about “traces” of uranium enriched to a higher level. Missing from the entire article is any detail of how much material was found or to what level the uranium was enriched. The highest level of enrichment currently declared by Iran is 20%, which the press in the recent past has been describing as only a short “technical step” away from the the 90%+ needed for a nuclear weapon.

The next two paragraphs from Jahn basically render his entire story moot:

The diplomats say the finding by the International Atomic Energy Agency does not necessarily mean that Iran is secretly raising its enrichment threshold.

They say the traces could be left during startup of enriching centrifuges until the desired level is reached. That would be a technical glitch only.

So, in other words, these “diplomats” are doing their best to create a crisis over something that is a mere “technical glitch” and represents an insignificant amount of material. Of course, for those who only see the headline, especially the one on the Post’s website, the idea will have been planted that Iran is cheating on its declared enrichment program and secretly producing material that is ready to be placed into a weapon.

As I pointed out in this post, all of these incendiary press reports about Iran and uranium enrichment overlook a very important basic set of facts: Continue reading

Amano: Agreement With Iran Reached, “Will Be Signed Quite Soon”

It appears that the hopeful signals being sent out by Iran yesterday ahead of the visit by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano have been followed through. Speaking to reporters after his return to Vienna this morning, Amano announced that Iran and the IAEA have reached agreement on how to move forward on inspection of Iran’s nuclear activities.

Of particular importance, Amano describes the agreement as part of a structured approach, which seems to fit Iran’s insistence that any agreement would lay out in advance the framework for how and where inspections are to take place. From Bloomberg:

“There was an important development on the structured approach document on which we have been working since January,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said today in Vienna after returning from Tehran, where the deal was reached yesterday. “The decision was made to conclude and sign an agreement.”

The accord will be signed “quite soon,” Amano told journalists, without giving a date or details. The agreement comes as negotiators head to Baghdad for a second round of negotiations tomorrow over Iran’s nuclear program.

The New York Times has more key details, including the fact that inspection of the Parchin facility will be part of the agreement:

Mr. Amano’s visit to Tehran on Monday was his first to Iran since his appointment in 2009. Mr. Amano’s trip here, announced unexpectedly on Friday, was part of what diplomats in Vienna called an effort centered on persuading Iran to allow inspections of a site the agency suspects has been used for secret tests for triggering mechanisms that could be used in a nuclear weapon. Iranian officials have ridiculed those suspicions and contended that the site, called Parchin, was sufficiently inspected by the agency in 2005.

Diplomats in Vienna said an investigation of the Parchin site was “not the only game in town” in the negotiations on the so-called structured approach.”

Asked about the Parchin site specifically, Mr. Amano said: “I have raised this issue of access to Parchin and this issue will be addressed as a point of the implementation of the structured approach document.”

Significantly, the suggestions that Iran has attempted to clean the Parchin site have not made it into any of the articles I have seen announcing this agreement. Continue reading

Despite Progress on Iran-IAEA Talks, US Envoy Emphasizes War Plans

Both Bloomberg and the AP’s George Jahn reported yesterday that the second session of talks in Vienna between the IAEA and Iran produced progress and that additional talks are now scheduled for May 21 in Vienna. But don’t look for news of this progress in the New York Times, because it’s not there. And don’t look for statements from the US praising the progress (although China did praise it) and urging further progress at Monday’s talks in Vienna or the P5+1 talks later in the week in Baghdad. Instead, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro chose to emphasize in an interview on Army Radio in Israel that US plans for war with Iran are ready to be put into action.

First, the good news on the progress. From Bloomberg:

Iran and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors extended a round of negotiations over the Persian Gulf nation’s suspected nuclear-weapon work after both sides said progress had been made.

IAEA inspectors will meet again with their Iranian counterparts on May 21 in Vienna. They ended today two days of talks in the Austrian capital.

“We discussed a number of options to take the agency verification process forward,” IAEA chief inspector Herman Nackaerts told reporters. “We had a good exchange of views.”


“We had fruitful discussions in a very conducive environment,” Iran’s IAEA Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh said. “We have had progress.”

More details on the progress are reported by Mehr News:

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency have agreed to develop a modality for further cooperation, the Mehr News Agency has learnt.

The responsibilities and commitments of each side will be determined by the modality and the measures necessary will be taken based on the agreement.

In his report on the progress of negotiations, George Jahn couldn’t resist a partial reprise of his report over the weekend in which he breathlessly released a cartoon purporting to depict an explosives chamber where nebulous “Western diplomats” have leaked to Jahn that work to develop an explosive neutron trigger for an atomic bomb has been carried out. In an interesting development, Jahn has put a new accusation into this scenario. On Tuesday, I pointed out that if the accused work has been carried out in the chamber, then the steel walls of the chamber will be radioactive due to neutron activation and that this radioactivity will be dispersed throughout the entire thickness of the steel. That means the chamber cannot have its radioactivity removed by the cleaning process claimed by David Albright:

The process could involve grinding down the surfaces inside the building, collecting the dust and then washing the area thoroughly.  This could be followed with new building materials and paint.  It could also involve removing any dirt around the building thought to contain contaminants.

Jahn now allows for the possibility that Iran could not leave a chamber that is radioactive due to neutron activation in the building for an IAEA inspection:

 Some fear that Iran may even dismantle the explosives containment chamber believed to be inside the suspect building, taking it out in small pieces, if given enough time.

Why has Jahn’s language evolved from “scrubbing” the chamber to removing it? Continue reading

Separating Truth from Fiction at Parchin: Neutron Activation Can’t Be Scrubbed Away

Neutrons passing through steel would occasionally collide with a cobalt-59 nucleus, producing easily detectable cobalt-60 if trigger experiments were carried out in the steel chamber at Parchin. (From a Wikimedia Commons illustration of the 1911 Rutherford experiment where alpha particles were sent through a thin gold foil.)

Both Marcy, here,  and b, over at Moon of Alabama, have roundly criticized the cartoon released on Sunday by AP’s George Jahn purporting to depict a chamber at Iran’s Parchin site where various groups accuse Iran of carrying out work aimed at an explosive trigger device for a nuclear weapon. David Albright, working through his Institute for Science and International Security, has been near the forefront in most of these accusations, with one of his accusations coming out in December of 2009 (pdf). As described in his 2009 piece, Albright accuses Iran of attempting to replicate A.Q. Khan’s uranium deuteride (UD3) initiator for a bomb, which “works by the high explosives compressing the nuclear core and the initiator, producing a spurt of neutrons as a result of fusion in D-D reactions. The neutrons flood the core of weapon-grade uranium and initiate the chain reaction.”

Prior to the release of the cartoon, Albright had claimed on May 8 that he had detected activity aimed at “cleansing” the Parchin site.  I debunked that claim the next day, by pointing out that all traces of radioactivity cannot be washed away and that Albright’s claims would mean that the waste water carrying the radioactivity was allowed to drain freely onto the grounds surrounding the building, where the radioactivity could be found without much effort. Albright repeats those claims in Jahn’s article accompanying the cartoon, and he brings in another expert to support his claims that residue from testing a trigger device could be scrubbed:

A cleanup “could involve grinding down the surfaces inside the building, collecting the dust and then washing the area thoroughly,” said David Albright, whose Institute for Science and International Security in Washington looks for signs of nuclear proliferation. “This could be followed with new building materials and paint.

“It could also involve removing any dirt around the building thought to contain contaminants,” Albright said in a statement emailed to selected recipients. “These types of activities could be effective in defeating environmental sampling.”

Fitzpatrick, the other nuclear nonproliferation expert, also said a cleanup could be effective.

“In the past, the IAEA has been able to catch out Iran by going to a building that Iran tried to clean and they still found traces of uranium,” he said. “And Iran learned from that and they learned that ‘boy you have to scrub everything really clean; get down into the drains and grind away any possible residue.”

Earlier in the article, Fitzpatrick (who is  Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program of the International Institute for Strategic Studies) mentions that Iran is specifically accused of using uranium in the explosives research. Also, the article claims that the equipment associated with the chamber includes “a neutron detection system outside the explosion chamber to measure neutron emissions”.

Albright and Fitzpatrick completely overlook a very important basic aspect of the nuclear physics involved here. If they really are going to claim that uranium is being used and that bursts of neutrons capable of initiating a nuclear reaction are the goal of the experiments, then the neutrons originating from the uranium and from the neutron bursts would result in neutron activation of the steel container itself. Continue reading

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