How a Nonexistent Bomb Cylinder Distorts the Iran Nuclear Issue

For many months, the most dramatic media storyline on Iran’s nuclear program has been an explosives-containment cylinder that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says was installed at Iran’s Parchin military base a decade ago to test nuclear weapons. The coverage of the initial IAEA account of the cylinder in its report last November has been followed by a steady drip of reports about Iran refusing to allow the agency’s inspectors to visit the site at Parchin and satellite photos showing what are said to be Iranian efforts to “sanitize” the site.

But unknown to consumers of corporate news, the story of the Parchin bomb-test cylinder has been quietly unraveling. A former IAEA expert on nuclear weapons has criticized the story as technically implausible; the account itself turns out to be marked by a central internal contradiction, and even satellite images published to the IAEA account have been found by experts to contradict it.

The evidence detailed below leaves little room for doubt that the whole story of an explosives cylinder designed with the help a former Soviet nuclear weapons scientist was a falsehood, foisted on the world by a state that is never named, but with an obvious political interest in promoting the idea of a covert Iranian nuclear arms program. However, the IAEA, which is supposed to be a politically neutral organization, appears to be committed to the storyline as part of the political commitment to the anti-Iran coalition that was pledged by its Director General Yukiya Amano. The tale of the bomb-test cylinder is an essential backdrop for the coming confrontation with Iran.

I. An Implausible Account and Some Telling Admissions

In its November 2011 report, the IAEA said it had been given “information from Member States” that in 2000, Iran had built a “large explosive containment vessel in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments.” That is the term generally understood in the context of the Iranian nuclear program to mean simulations of the initial phase of a nuclear explosion using substitutes for fissile material. The agency claimed it had “confirmed” that the cylinder had the capacity to contain up to 70 kilograms (kg) of high explosives, based in part on a publication by a former Soviet nuclear weapons specialist who had allegedly helped Iran build the chamber. And it seemed to suggest that there was satellite evidence to support the story, claiming that a building had been “constructed at that time around a large cylindrical object” at Parchin.

But those details of the alleged bomb-test chamber immediately struck former senior IAEA inspector Robert Kelley as implausible from a strictly technical point of view. Kelley’s credentials for challenging the IAEA were second to none. He had been project leader for nuclear intelligence at Los Alamos National Laboratory before becoming the director of IAEA’s Action Team for Iraq in 1992-93. He then served as director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Remove Sensing Laboratory from 1996 to 1998, rejoining the IAEA to head its Iraq Action Team again from 2001 to 2005.

Kelley told an interviewer with the Real News Network only a few days after the report: “You have to be crazy to do hydrodynamic explosives in a container. There’s no reason to do it. They’re done outdoors on firing tables.” Any test of a nuclear weapon design would have involved “far more explosives” than the 70 kg capacity claimed for the cylinder at Parchin, said Kelley. The Bush administration had accused Iran of carrying out hydrodynamic testing of nuclear weapons at Parchin as early as 2004, but on the assumption that the tests had been done outdoors, on such a firing table — not inside an explosive chamber.

The “foreign expert” whose publication was said to have provided data on the containment chamber’s dimensions was identified in leaks to the news media as Vyacheslav Danilenko, a Ukrainian who had worked in a Soviet nuclear weapons facility for most of his career, but who is known to have specialized from the beginning in the nascent field of nanodiamonds. Leaving the Soviet Union before it collapsed, he sought to make a living based on his patented design for an explosive chamber in which to produce those microscopic industrial diamonds. In 1992, Danilenko joined the private company ALIT in Kiev, Ukraine, which adopted his design for nanodiamond production.

The dimensions of the alleged bomb-test chamber said to have been built with Danilenko’s help and installed in Parchin were leaked to journalists Michael Adler and the Associated Press’s George Jahn in April and May. It is said to have been about 62 feet long and 14 feet tall, except for a reinforced midsection that is 25 feet tall.

Those dimensions, which would make the bomb cylinder roughly 1,000 cubic feet in volume, were obviously based on Danilenko’s patented explosives chamber shown on a PowerPoint slide presentation prepared by the Philadelphia-based NanoBlox corporation, which works on explosive production of nanodiamonds. But that same PowerPoint shows that the Danilenko cylinder was designed to contain only 10 kg of explosive — one-seventh as much as the 70 kg of explosives that the Parchin chamber is said to have been capable of containing.

When he read that Iran had produced a containment chamber that big and with such a large capability for explosives containment, nuclear weapons specialist Kelley was incredulous. “It’s bigger than any bomb-containment vessel the United States has ever built,” he told this writer. Kelley also noted that the biggest explosive chamber at the purportedly “world class” weapons labs at Los Alamos National Lab can only handle 10 kg of explosives.

A close reading of the IAEA November report suggests that its authors were aware of the problems Kelley had identified. The paragraph on the Parchin chamber says the 70 kg capacity of the alleged cylinder at Parchin “would be suitable for carrying out the type of experiments described in paragraph 43 above.” But that paragraph was not about hydrodynamic testing. It was about what it called a “multipoint initiation concept.” A “multipoint initiation” system could be used for initiating an explosion related to either a nuclear weapon or for a conventional explosive application.

As Kelley pointed out in an interview with this writer, moreover, a “multipoint initiation” experiment “doesn’t use uranium, so there’s no need for a bomb-test chamber.” And the chamber described in the IAEA report is far too big for such an experiment, Kelley explained. For both reasons, it would be done outside.

The report says Iran carried out “at least one large-scale experiment in 2003” on a multipoint initiation technology. But rather than supporting the IAEA’s case, that piece of information makes it even murkier, because the report states that those experiments were conducted “in the region of Marivan” — a location close to the Iranian border with Iraqi Kurdistan and very far from Parchin.

The report makes no effort to claim that there was any such bomb-containment chamber in Marivan.

So, what the report actually tells us, by implication, is that the cylinder supposedly installed for “hydrodynamic tests” was not really appropriate for those tests at all.

An article by David Albright and Paul Brannan of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) on the organization’s website on April 10 argued that the reason for doing a test on the “multipoint initiation concept” inside the alleged bomb container “would likely have been to hide its activities from overhead observation.” But that doesn’t solve the IAEA’s problem either, because, as Kelley pointed out in an interview, such an experiment could simply be covered by a tent to hide it from satellite surveillance.

II. What the Satellite Images Really Tell Us

Albright and Brannan cited two satellite images of the site at Parchin published in the same article as evidence supporting the IAEA’s claim that a building at the site had been constructed “around a large cylindrical object.” The co-authors said one satellite image of the site where the nuclear test vessel was allegedly located, dated March 14, 2000, “shows the foundation of the building that would contain the explosive test,” but was “not yet placed on the foundation in this image.”

But Kelley and three former U.S. intelligence officers with long experience in image interpretation consulted for this story all conclude from an examination of the March 2000 image that it does not show a foundation for a building that would eventually be built around the bomb chamber as ISIS claimed. And Kelley and three other experts on image interpretation expressed serious doubts that the Parchin site shown in the images has characteristics that would be associated with any high-explosives testing site, let alone a nuclear weapons testing site.

Kelley, who obtained the March 2000 image last January, told this writer, “You can see the roof is already on.”

Retired Col. Pat Lang, who had been defense intelligence officer for Middle East, South Asia, and counterterrorism at the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1985 to 1992, also said that the image did not show a foundation. “The ‘foundation’ casts a large shadow in the direction of the top of the picture as do other structures,” he said in an email to this writer. “Foundations do not normally cast shadows.”

Another former intelligence officer with extensive experience in photographic interpretation, who asked not to be named, told this writer, “The object looks elevated, like a roof.”

A third former intelligence officer, who also has many years of experience in image interpretation and who requested anonymity, said the March 2000 image shows neither a foundation for an eventual building, nor a roof, but simply a concrete slab. He said he found “no evidence of trenching or refilling which is necessary for a foundation footing.”

The same officer said the structure shown in images from 2004 and later years published by ISIS does not appear to have been built on the same foundation as depicted in the 2000 image, as claimed by Albright and Brannan. He said the structure was “much larger than the slab imaged in 2001.” But the same officer said it was “not a substantial structure, like others at Parchin,” suggesting it was more like “a shed.”

Further damaging the credibility of the Parchin bomb chamber story, Kelley and the three former intelligence officers consulted for this story said the 2004 image and later images of the site at Parchin suggest that it has not been used for high-explosives testing at all. “The building in question is not a classical HE [high explosives] building, that is for sure,” Kelley told this writer. And he noted that Parchin has many other buildings that do have “classical high-explosive signatures.”

Two of the former intelligence officers also said the site does not display any of the other characteristics associated with high-explosives testing, much less testing involving nuclear weapons. Both officers said the building in question is far too close to a major divided highway to be involved in such sensitive testing activity. They also said there are no special security features as would be expected of a top secret facility.

Former defense intelligence officer Lang disagreed with the other former analysts on that point, suggesting that normal security practices were not necessarily followed in the Middle East. But Kelley pointed out that Iraq’s Al Qaqaa facility, where high explosives had been stored and tested, did have security features that were missing at the site in question.

Brannan, who had directed a project at ISIS using commercial satellite imagery to analyze nuclear sites in Iran and elsewhere, left the organization in mid-May to work at the DOE. He did not respond to a query to his personal email asking for further explanation for the claim that the photograph shows a foundation rather than a building with a roof already on it.

III. The Iranian “Clean-Up” at Parchin”

The tale of the Parchin bomb-test chamber has been made even more believable to the average newspaper reader or television news viewer by persistent press reports claiming evidence of Iranian efforts to “clean up” the site at Parchin. The stories all reinforced one another and fit together with the basic narrative of an Iranian cover-up of nuclear-weapons-related testing.

The first such story appeared on Nov. 22, just two weeks after the IAEA report was published. Associated Press Vienna correspondent Jahn, who was the conduit for later leaks on the same theme, reported that an official of an unidentified state had “cited intelligence from his home country, saying it appears that Tehran is trying to cover its tracks by sanitizing the site and removing any evidence of nuclear research and development.”

Albright and Brannan published a satellite image dated April 9 which appears to show a stream of water from one end of the building along its side. They wrote that the image “raises concerns that Iran may have been washing inside the building, or perhaps washing the items outside the building.” The implication was that this could be an effort to wash away traces of radioactive material used in tests.

But again Kelley explained why that makes no sense. “The Uranium signatures are very persistent in the environment,” he wrote in an article for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in May. “If Iran is using hoses to wash contamination across a parking lot into a ditch, there will be enhanced opportunities for uranium collection if teams are allowed access.

Albright was back again in June with a new satellite image taken May 25 showing that soil had been moved from two areas north and south of the building said to have held the explosive chamber and showing that two much smaller buildings nearby had been demolished. But it also showed that the same soil was dumped only a few hundred feet farther north of the building, making environmental sampling quite simple. The fragments of the two small buildings demolished at the site appear to have been left intact on the ground, and the building where the chamber had allegedly been located and the soil closest to it remained undisturbed.

In the context of obvious Iranian knowledge that satellites are taking images of the site regularly and that news headlines based on those images would certainly follow, the images in question suggest something quite different from the “clean up” of the site reported in global news media: an Iranian effort to increase the value to the IAEA of visiting the site, so the agency would be more open to compromise on its demand to be able to continue investigating allegations of Iranian covert nuclear weapons work indefinitely, regardless of the information provided by Iran in response to its questions.

That Iranian strategy is unlikely to work, however. The clean-up stories — obviously coming from the same sources that provided the original information on the Parchin bomb-test chamber — appear to be efforts to prepare public opinion for the inevitable IAEA finding after a visit to Parchin that there was no evidence of any such bomb-test chamber. The same diplomats will be quoted in the stories on the IAEA visit explaining how the Iranians had merely washed or hauled away the evidence of hydrodynamic testing at the site.

At a deeper level, the negotiations between Iran and the IAEA over the terms of the investigation of the alleged “military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program are hostage to the higher level negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. Amano was elected director general in 2009 thanks to U.S. diplomatic support, and, as an October 2009 WikiLeaks cable revealed, Amano reminded the U.S. ambassador to the agency more than once that he was “solidly in the U.S. court” on handling the Iranian file. Clearly, the United States and its allies want Amano to keep Iran in the position of being accused of such covert nuclear weapons work in order to maximize the political-diplomatic pressure on Tehran.

The political interests of the key players and the complicity of corporate news media appear to guarantee that the Parchin explosives cylinder will continue to dominate public consciousness, despite the fact that the storyline around it has been thoroughly debunked. The persistent narrative serves as yet another chilling indicator of just how far the mass communications system in the United States and elsewhere has tilted toward the Orwellian model.

Originally published by Truthout.

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.