UN inspectors play detective over IranSEIBERSDORF, Austria - It's an hour's drive through the Austrian countryside - past snow-covered farms and villages - to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA's) laboratory complex outside Vienna.
Deep inside the complex is the Clean Lab, a high-technology facility equipped to detect tiny levels of radiation. And it's where the IAEA inspectors bring their samples from Iran's nuclear sites for analysis.
Inside the Clean Lab, there is a hum from machinery surrounding a small, sealed-off chamber where visitors cannot go. Within that chamber, four people in spotless white suits hover over electronic consoles. Their shoes are left outside.
David Donohue is the head of the Clean Lab. He and his team are experts in the high-stakes game of determining the true nature of a country's nuclear program. The game pits radiation-detection equipment against official efforts to conceal activities that might lead to nuclear weapons.
Donohue says the Clean Lab has received some samples of uranium enriched to 50% from Iran. "I think there were some particles seen with 50%, or between 30% and 50% enrichment, which is quite high," he said. "Of course, you need to have up to about 90% enrichment to make a nuclear weapon. But, even so, in a country which says they haven't enriched any uranium at all, to find these kinds of particles was a surprise and the [IAEA] is looking into the different explanations for that."
Iran denied it was trying to enrich uranium until an exiled opposition group exposed a secret underground pilot project near Natanz in 2002 . Tehran later said the high levels of enrichment found at the site after it was opened to IAEA inspectors was caused by contaminated machinery imported from other countries.
Today, the nuclear crisis continues, as Tehran insists on its right under international treaties to pursue low-level uranium enrichment as part of a peaceful nuclear program. However, enrichment processes are hard to monitor, raising fears that they could be secretly applied to bomb making.
Iran's explanation of the origins of its highly enriched uranium has yet to be sufficiently proven to reassure the international community. So the IAEA has stepped up its inspection efforts to learn more about Iran's activities.
Donohue describes the sometimes cat-and-mouse nature of the inspection efforts. The IAEA experts like to target industrial and military sites equipped for the kind of high-precision machine work needed to produce nuclear components. But Tehran has at times barred inspection teams from sites for days. When the inspectors finally get access, they find only empty rooms - and the battle of wits really begins.
"You go in with these swipe samples. You try to collect dust from places which haven't been cleaned lately, like the ventilation ducts or inaccessible places where they probably haven't cleaned very well - or you sample the floor, or the walls, or something like that," Donohue said. "And you are just looking for these small traces of uranium [or] plutonium that would give you a clue what they did in there."
The task of detecting any radioactive material swept up in the samples falls to the nuclear engineers of the Clean Lab. Donohue says the laboratory has instruments capable of finding even the faintest traces.
"For this we need very expensive and very sensitive instruments, different kinds of mass spectrometers and an electron microscope, things like that, to target in on these few uranium particles that are there, to ignore all the millions of particles that are not of any interest," he said. "So, we have these instruments, they cost $1 million, some of them. And with this we are able to find the needle in the haystack, the five or 10 particles of uranium in a swipe [sample] that has a million particles of dirt."
If the Clean Lab team finds traces of radiation, it forwards the samples to other more specialized nuclear laboratories for further analysis. The other laboratories - which can be in the United States, Russia, a European Union state, Japan or Australia - provide further information as to how and where the radioactive material was produced or used.
The IAEA hopes its inspections will ultimately provide the evidence for determining whether Iran does - or does not - have programs to develop nuclear weapons. But so far the agency says it is still far from being able to answer that question definitively.
IAEA director general Muhammad ElBaradei said this month that the inspectors are making "good progress" in understanding the nature of Iran's nuclear activities. He also called on Tehran to be "more transparent" with his agency if it wants to build confidence that Iran has only a peaceful nuclear program.
Iran opens one nuclear door
When about 30 Iranian and foreign journalists approached the Natanz nuclear facility for their state-sponsored tour this week, they saw a sprawling complex ringed by mountains and at least 10 anti-aircraft batteries.
The existence of the 450-hectare facility was first revealed to the IAEA in 2002 by an Iranian exile group. Wednesday marked the first time reporters have been allowed to photograph Natanz. At its heavily guarded gate, there were no signs to indicate the nature of the work going on inside.
Washington and the European Union fear Iran could be using nuclear centrifuges at Natanz and elsewhere to produce heavily enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Iran's President Mohammad Khatami, who accompanied the tour, admitted that Tehran plans to enrich uranium as part of what he calls a "pilot program" at Natanz. But he repeated Tehran's long-held assertion that its nuclear program is only for generating electricity.
"We will definitely enrich [uranium]. And naturally we will start with a pilot [program]," he said. "I hope that this step will be taken with an agreement - an understanding and commitment from our European friends and the IAEA regarding our commitments, which we have met."
The tour was an unusual gesture of openness by Iran. The journalists were taken deep inside a building where, two levels below ground, they were shown a vast, empty room designed for 50,000 enrichment centrifuges.
Iranian officials say the enrichment facility was built more than 18 meters underground because of what they call "security problems".
Ian Kemp, a London-based independent defense expert, says it is a precaution against possible aerial attack by the US or Israel - which both have vowed to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
"From the Iranian perspective," Kemp said, "they would be justified in taking defensive measures, not only for their nuclear facilities but also for their non-nuclear power generation facilities. They've experienced in the past that Israel has the capability to strike targets inside Iran. And, of course, there was the 2003 campaign [by the US in Iraq]. So they know that the power infrastructure would be a likely target if the Americans were ever to take military action against Iran."
Centrifuges are used to purify uranium fluoride gas into fuel for reactors or bombs by spinning the radioactive material at high speeds. Low-grade enriched uranium is used in nuclear power plants. High-grade "heavily enriched" uranium is needed to make the core of a nuclear bomb.
The journalists were not shown any centrifuges. And they were not allowed to visit the pilot enrichment facility at Natanz to inspect dozens of centrifuges that were sealed off by IAEA inspectors in October 2003 pending discussions with the EU on the future of its nuclear program.
In Washington, US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli dismissed the tour of Natanz as a "staged media event" that falls short of the openness needed to end Iran's nuclear dispute with the US and the EU.
Ereli says if Iran is really serious about transparency in its nuclear program, it should answer all of the IAEA's outstanding questions. He says Iran should stop denying IAEA inspectors full and unrestricted access to sites like the Parchin high-explosives facility about 30 kilometers southwest of Tehran. And he says Tehran should stop refusing IAEA requests to interview key officials associated with Iran's nuclear activities.
Kemp believes the US State Department is right to dismiss the value of the journalists' tour. "I think the State Department is very accurate about the usefulness of journalists - who have very little understanding of the complexities of nuclear issues or the sort of insight they would be able to bring to an inspection of Iranian nuclear facilities," he said. "This really is something that requires experts of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Or, indeed, experts that are agreed upon by the parties that are concerned. Because, of course, much of this equipment can be used for dual purposes - nuclear power for civilian use but also spin-off for military programs."
IAEA inspectors first visited Natanz in early 2003. Tehran is currently engaged in talks with a troika of nations from the EU, which wants Iran to permanently scrap Natanz and other nuclear fuel work in return for assistance with developing nuclear energy and other economic and security cooperation.
Copyright (c) 2005, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC 20036