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Washington--The disclosure of Iran's secret nuclear plant has changed the way the West must negotiate with Tehran. While worrisome enough on its own, the plant at Qum may well be the first peek at something far worse: a planned, or even partly completed, hidden nuclear archipelago stretching across the country.
The Qum plant doesn't make much sense as a stand-alone bomb factory. As described by American officials, the plant would house 3,000 centrifuges, able to enrich enough uranium for one or two bombs per year. Yet at their present rate of production, 3,000 of Iran's existing IR-1 centrifuges would take two years to fuel a single bomb and 10 years for five weapons. This is too long a time frame for the American assessment to be feasible. To build one or two bombs a year, Iran would have to quadruple the centrifuges' present production rate. (While this feat is theoretically within the centrifuges' design limits, it is not one Iran has shown it can achieve.)
Perhaps Iran was planning to install more efficient centrifuges at the plant, like a version of the P-2 machine used by Pakistan. These could fuel a five-bomb arsenal in just over a year. But while we know Iran has tested such machines, there is no evidence that it can make them in bulk.
Regardless of the machines used, it would take a couple of years at the front end to get them installed. Iran would be looking at three to five years of high activity at the site, during which the risk of discovery would skyrocket.
Clearly, the new plant makes more sense if it is one of many. If Iran built a second plant of the same size as the Qum operation and ran them in tandem, the production times described above could be almost halved. And if Iran had a string of such plants, it would be able to fuel a small arsenal quickly enough to reduce greatly the chance of getting caught. This would also limit the damage if one site were discovered or bombed, because its loss might not affect the others. Such a secret string of plants, however, would probably require a secret source of uranium. Intelligence agencies have been looking for such a source; the Qum discovery should be a signal to increase their efforts.
The Qum plant might also be linked to Iran's known enrichment plant at Natanz, which is under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Natanz has a stockpile of uranium that is already enriched partway to weapon-grade. By feeding this uranium into the new Qum plant, Iran could fuel one bomb in about seven months, even at the present low production rate. If the rate were quadrupled, as Washington is projecting, the plant could fuel a five-bomb arsenal in less than a year.
But because the Natanz plant is being watched over by international inspectors, diversion of its material would probably be detected. The question is whether Iran might chance it, deciding that its production rate was high enough to give it a nuclear deterrent before other countries could organize a response to the diversion.
Having begun the Qum plant to supply a bomb's fuel, wouldn't Iran also create what's needed to produce the rest of the bomb's components? This means laboratories to perfect nuclear weapon detonation and workshops to produce the firing sets, high-explosive lenses and other necessary parts. Although there is plenty of suspicion that such sites exist, Iran has not admitted having them.
All must be found. When talks begin in Geneva tomorrow, there should be little concern with the formerly dominant question of suspending enrichment at Natanz. Rather, Iran must be made to produce a complete map of its nuclear sites, together with a history of how each was created and provisioned.
This means getting access to scientists, records, equipment and sites. It is a lot to ask, and we may not have the leverage to get it. But anything less will provide no protection against what we now know is Iran's determination to build the bomb.
Gary Milhollin directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. Valerie Lincy is the editor of Iranwatch.org.