News leaked today that to better understand and answer questions about Iran’s nuclear activities scientists have turned to a secret replica of Iran’s nuclear facilities built deep in the forests of Tennessee to get answers.
Inside a shiny plant at the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation are giant centrifuges — some surrendered more than a decade ago by Libya, others built since — that help the scientists come up with what they tell President Obama is the “best reasonable” estimates of Iran’s real-life ability to race for a weapon under various scenarios.
“We know a lot more about Iranian centrifuges than we would otherwise,” said a senior nuclear specialist familiar with the forested site and its covert operations.
The top secret replica is just one part of an extensive crash program within the nation’s nine atomic laboratories to block Iran’s nuclear progress. It may have even served as a testbed for the cyber attack on Iran’s program early last year.
As the next round of Iran nuclear talks begins on Wednesday in Vienna, the secretive effort remains a technological obsession for thousands of lab employees who are essentially living the Manhattan Project but in reverse. Rather than building a bomb, like they did in World War 2, they are trying to stop one.
Ernest J. Moniz, the nuclear scientist and secretary of energy, who oversees the atomic labs, said in an interview that as the U.S. administration sought technical solutions at the talks, diplomats would not have been able to offer any “if they didn’t have this capability nurtured over many decades.”
The new mission has changed the labs. In the bomb making days, the scientists largely kept to their well-guarded posts. But anyone travelling to the Iran talks over the past year and a half in Vienna and Lausanne, Switzerland, saw the scientists working hard as the negotiations proceeded, and heading out to dinner after hours of talks.
One of those dinners in Vienna last summer produced a face-saving way for Iran to convert its deep-underground enrichment plant at Fordo, a covert site exposed by the United States 5 years ago, into a research center. The creative solution would enable Iran to say the site was still open, and the United States could be certain it was no longer a threat.
“The question was what kind of experiment you can do deep underground,” recalled a participant at the dinner. By the time coffee was served, an idea had developed, and it subsequently became a central part of the understanding with Iran that the U.S. announced this month. Under the preliminary agreement, Fordo would become a research center, but not for any element that could be used in nuclear weapons.
While some did travel with the delegation most of the work was done back at the labs, where specialists who had become accustomed to more 9-to-5 days found themselves on call seven days a week, around the clock, answering questions from diplomats and backing up the answers with calculations and computer modeling.
Kevin Veal, A senior official of the National Nuclear Security Administration, has been along for every negotiating session and would send questions back to the laboratories, hoping to separate good ideas from bad. “It’s what our people love to do,” said Thom Mason, the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “It can be very rewarding.”