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Iran Special: Taking Apart the "Iran's Plan B for a Nuclear Bomb" Scare Story

The Daily Telegraph's not-so-dramatic "dramatic" photograph of the Arak heavy-water plant and reactor under construction (Photo: Digital Globe/Mackenzie Intelligence)

Joanna Paraszczuk and Scott Lucas write for EA:

This morning's Page 1 headline in the Daily Telegraph of London proclaims, "Iran's Plan B for a Nuclear Bomb":

Iran is developing a second path to a nuclear weapons capability by operating a plant that could produce plutonium, satellite images show for the first time.

The story, written by four reporters, is dramatic. It is scary.

It also has nothing "exclusive" pointing to the "first time". And it has nothing that comes close to a "Nuclear Bomb".

Here is the Telegraph's opening claim:

The images, taken earlier this month, show that Iran has activated the Arak heavy-water production plant.

Heavy water is needed to operate a nuclear reactor that can produce plutonium, which could then be used to make a bomb.

Leave aside that we have known about Arak's heavy-water operation since 2004. Leave aside that Arak has not been "activated" --- it is not due on-line for another 12 months. Here's what EA wrote last week, following unfounded scare stories over the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, about the supposition that Arak is producing plutonium for a nuclear weapon:

Plutonium is a natural by-product of the standard operation of a light-water power generating reactor, and its extraction from the reactor's waste product is treated as as a normal step in the fuel cycle. Indeed, countries such as France and Japan use the plutonium in mixed-oxide fuel that is inserted back into a power reactor.

There is no clause in the Non-Proliferation Treaty or bilateral agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency that prohibit the extraction of plutonium from nuclear waste vis reprocessing.

In other words, any civilian heavy-water reactor generates plutonium. The question is what is then done with it. So what do we know?

The Daily Telegraph's story is correct on one point: Tehran has resisted an inspection of the heavy-water plant since summer 2011, although inspectors have been able to visit the reactor. Here's the IAEA report from last Thursday:

On 11 February 2013, the Agency carried out a DIV [inspection] at the IR-40 Reactor at Arak and observed that the installation of cooling and moderator ci rcuit piping was almost complete. As previously reported, Iran has stated that the operation of the IR-40 Reactor is expected to commence in the first quarter of 2014.

Since its visit to the Heavy Water Production Plant (HWPP) on 17 August 2011, the Agency has not been provided with further access to the plant. As a result, the Agency is again relying only on satellite imagery to monitor the status of HWPP. Based on recent images, the plant appears to continue to be in operation. To date, Iran has not permitted the Agency to take samples of the heavy water stored at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF).

So there is the continuing IAEA concern that it has not been inside the heavy-water plant. But how does that translate to "proof" that Tehran is deviously manipulating the plutonium for military, rather than civilian uses?

Back to the Telegraph's dramatic claim: "The images show...a cloud of steam that indicates heavy-water production...a vivid demonstration that the regime has more than one pathway to a potential nuclear weapon."

Which tells us nothing beyond what we already knew --- when you produce heavy water, you get the plutonium by-product.

OK, what about this? "Other images of the area around Arak show that numerous anti-aircraft missile and artillery sites protect the plant, more than are deployed around any other known nuclear site in the country."

Well, no, they don't. The image in an accompanying story by David Blair --- courtesy of "Mackenzie Intelligence Ltd" --- has a number of super-imposed cross-hatches on top of a shot of the landscape. There is nothing to indicate that Iran has dozens of anti-aircraft weapons, even the obsolete "Shahin" missiles which the Telegraph highlights.

EA's Joanna Paraszczuk gets to the not-so-dramatic story, which includes anti-aircraft positions in context:

It has long been recognized that the three [nuclear] complexes at Isfahan, Natanz, and Arak would be primary targets in any Israeli strike. In response Iran has bolstered its defenses around its nuclear sites, including SAM systems and Early Warning radar sites.

It is also known --- again from open source intelligence --- that Iran has a network of Early Warning radar sites mostly along its periphery, including along the Persian Gulf coast, and that there are have been additional facilities near Arak for some years now.

Indeed, the Telegraph, in its haste to prove a special air-defense system about a special site pushing for a Bomb, does not even understand the weapons in its story, as Paraszczuk notes:

Iran has an upgraded air defense system, the Mersad, which fires its Shahin missiles. In addition, Iran also has seven Russian-made S-200 SAM batteries, which its military regularly tests, and large numbers of its Samavat 35mm towed anti-aircraft guns for its nuclear sites, including Arak. The 35mm cannons are coupled with the Skyguard radar system.

Nor is the Telegraph's claim of a "smoking gun" --- or "smoking plant" --- image a novel one. Here's Global Security in 2005 with its supposed dramatic photograph: "The probable Plutonium production reactor was visible." Or you can glance at Satellite Imaging Corporation in 2007. Or the Institute for Science and International Security from 2002-2009. Or that used by the BBC in January 2012.

Or this from Google in May 2012:

In other words, the only novelty in the Telegraph's four-reporter, purchase-of-latest-photographs venture is the water vapour.

But once more, what about that supposed plutonium, presented by the Telegraph as, "could be enough for two nuclear warheads if the plutonium was reprocessed".

Over to Mark Fitzpatrick International Institute for Strategic Studies, the oft-quoted analyst used to play up Iran's threat. The Telegraph brings him out for four paragraphs --- unfortunately, none of those paragraphs has anything to do with the supposed conversion of plutonium for military use.

Far more telling are Fitzpatrick's comments on Twitter this morning:

In other words, even the Telegraph's main source for analysis says that there is nothing of substance in the story.

Indeed, even the Telegraph --- in the midst of its own supposed conclusive exclusive about Iran's "Plan B" --- admits there is nothing: "The country still lacks the technology to reprocess plutonium and use it for a weapon."

None of this will prevent the story racing across other newspapers and websites --- Israel's Haaretz is already proclaiming, "Iran Pursuing Nuclear Bomb Through Plutonium Production, New Satellite Images Reveal" --- because Scary Stories always get far more attention that Not-Scary Stories.

But re-spinning the assertions does not make them true --- no matter how many reporters you mobilise for the story, no matter how many photographs you purchase at whatever cost, no matter how big the banner.

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