Wednesday, April 22, 2015

In Atomic Labs Across U.S., a Race to Stop Iran

Photo: The Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. A secret replica of Iran’s nuclear facilities there has helped scientists devise estimates of Tehran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. Credit National Nuclear Security Administration, via Reuters


WASHINGTON — When diplomats at the Iran talks in Switzerland pummeled Department of Energy scientists with difficult technical questions — like how to keep Iran’s nuclear plants open but ensure that the country was still a year away from building a bomb — the scientists at times turned to a secret replica of Iran’s nuclear facilities built deep in the forests of Tennessee.

There inside a gleaming plant at the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation were giant centrifuges — some surrendered more than a decade ago by Libya, others built since — that helped the scientists come up with what they told President Obama were the “best reasonable” estimates of Iran’s real-life ability to race for a weapon under different 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 classified replica is but one part of an extensive crash program within the nation’s nine atomic laboratories — Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and Livermore among them — to block Iran’s nuclear progress. As the next round of talks begins on Wednesday in Vienna, the secretive effort remains a technological obsession for thousands of lab employees living the Manhattan Project in reverse. Instead of building a bomb, as their predecessors did in a race to end World War II, 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 Obama administration sought technical solutions at the talks, diplomats would have been stumbling in the dark “if we didn’t have this capability nurtured over many decades.” Although Mr. Moniz would not discuss the secret plant at Oak Ridge, parts of which date to the American and Israeli program to launch cyberattacks on Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant, he said more generally that the atomic labs give the United States “the capacity to carry through” in one of the most complex arms-control efforts in history.

(More here.)


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