Presence of Undeclared Natural Uranium at the Turquz-Abad Nuclear Weaponization Storage Location

November 20, 2019

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

Author: 

David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, Olli Heinonen, and Frank Pabian

Publication: 

Institute for Science and International Security

As confirmed during a special meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors on November 7, 2019, the IAEA reported the finding of multiple particles of natural uranium of “anthropogenic origin” at an unnamed site. Iranian government officials identify this site as the warehouse complex in Tehran’s Turquz-Abad district, also called by others the “Atomic Warehouse,” although these officials deny that the site was owned by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). A year earlier, in September 2018, Israel announced publicly that it had information that this site housed nuclear-related material and equipment related to Iran’s past and possibly on-going nuclear weapons efforts. Iran had emptied the site in an initial sanitization effort over the summer of 2018, following Israel’s disclosure in May 2018 that it had seized a vast set of files from a separate Nuclear Archive, also known as Atomic Archive, located also in southern Tehran (see Figures 1 and 2). In spite of several requests by the IAEA, Iran has not provided credible or satisfactory answers to questions concerning the presence of these uranium particles at the Turquz-Abad site, which suggest possible remaining presence of undeclared nuclear material or activities in Iran.

Diplomatic sources reportedly stated that the analysis of six samples collected at the site showed multiple particles of unenriched uranium, which had been purified through processing. Two uranium oxide particles were reportedly dated to no later than 2004, likely by evaluating radioactive decay products of uranium in the particles, a method that assumes that conversion would have removed any such radioactive material in the particles before processing. The analysis implies that there exists or existed an undeclared Iranian uranium conversion facility or activity. The existence of such a site would likely be a violation of Iran’s safeguards agreement.

Iran has challenged the IAEA findings. Behrouz Kamalvandi, Spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organizaton of Iran, in discussing the uranium found at Turquz-Abad, downplayed its significance, telling Iranian media that there was no enriched uranium contamination at Turquz-Abad. He stated, “Particles can fly anywhere.” He added that the warehouse site was owned by a private company where anything could have happened.

The Institute has studied the Turquz-Abad site and published a report in November 2018, including extensive satellite imagery coverage, which shows the removal of shipping containers from the site and possibly some other activities such as the use of burning areas. This current report continues that coverage with fresh information on activities at the site during and after the fall of 2018, in particular leading up to late February 2019 when the IAEA visited the site. The additional commercial satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies (together with other imagery that is freely available on Google Earth) shows that Iran most likely conducted additional sanitization activities at the site, involving the spread of various earthen materials and rubble over areas where containers were stored previously, likely to support a cover story that it was only a derelict site. Although the IAEA nonetheless found undeclared uranium particles at the site, as discussed above, Iran has tried to dismiss the significance of the presence of the uranium particles as accidental and refused to provide the IAEA access to contaminated material or equipment in the shipping containers or warehouse, or to other items removed from the site, prior to Netanyahu’s announcement in September 2018. The IAEA needs greater Iranian cooperation about past activities at this site and access to the equipment and material removed from the site. Iran should explain their whereabouts and not further move, distribute, or destroy any of this equipment or these materials before the IAEA has been able to examine them.

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Read the full report at the Institute for Science and International Security.