Iran’s Parchin site and the explosive vessel is making news. Here is a go at considering some of the comments and questions and hopefully providing a few additional insights.

Image: US LANL vessel for HE implosion testing.

Iran’s Parchin site and the explosive vessel is making news. Here is a go at considering some of the comments and questions and evena few additional insights.

Summary of Reported Information

First – according to multiple news reports and NGO papers – the Parchin vessel was designed by a Russian scientist from Chelyabinsk-70 for use in producing nanodiamonds via the perfectly timed implosion of high explosives. Chelyabinsk-70 is one of two nuclear weapon design laboratories in Russia. The scientists name is reported as V. Danilenko and he is said to have offered his services in 1995 to the Iranian embassy (ISIS; Danilenko), although another report claims that the Iranians read one of his conference papers describing the implosion process (Spiegel).

According to Gulfnews – the Parchin HE vessel is reported to be:

  • Built in early 2000’s by Azar AB Industries.
  • Size: 300 m3; D=4.6m and L=18.8 m.
  • It includes a vacuum pump to minimize pressure that could damage the structure during an explosion.
  • It was used for detonation experiments in 2003, 2005, 2006. NOTE this goes against both the US IC and the IAEA statements that the weapons program ended in 2003.
  • The scientists: Seyed Ashgar Hashemi-Tabar, described as “an expert in measuring detonation phenomena” and not previously identified. Acting on information from the same official, the AP previously named other scientists allegedly involved as Fereydoun Abbasi, the current head of Iran’s nuclear agency, who escaped an assassination attempt in 2010″ Darious Rezainejad, who was killed by a car bomb last year” and Reza Ebrahimi.”

According to the November 8, 2012 IAEA report the vessel was designed for 70 kgs of high explosives (HE).

ISIS writes that the chamber was for the possible testing of the R265 shock generation system with the following parameters:

R265 A hemispherical aluminum shell

  • Ri=26.5 cm
  • T(wall)=1.0 cm
  • Ro=27.5 cm
  • Do=55 cm

Per a 2010 Spiegel article by Follath and Stark, the Iranians tested a hemispherical explosive device with a diameter of 27.5 cm based upon the Russian test method. They report testing was done summer 2003.

  • The goal of the test is to determine whether the ensuing shock waves coming from all sides act simultaneously on the potential nuclear core.

Therefore according to Spiegel – the size of the high explosive test device is one half the physical size of the one reported by ISIS of 55 cm.

Playing with the Information

According to Bob Kelley a former IAEA inspector and my favorite former project manager at LANL:

  • You don’t do hydrodynamic testing of nuclear bombs in containers (guardian), and
  • A cylindrical chamber designed for 70 kgs of explosives is too high for hydrodynamic tests (atimes).

Okay it was Bob’s comments that sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place. First both the US and Russia have used containers to test nuclear weapons high explosives. Second there are reports that the Russian’s designed their vessels to 150 to 200 kgs of HE. Therefore the Parchin vessel, reportedly designed to 70 kgs, may be termed “modest” by Russian standards.

Per a 2011 report on the Comprehensive Test Band Treaty (CTBT):

  • Russian nuclear design laboratories are known to have conducted weapon-related experiments using large containment vessels. Senior officials from one of the Russian nuclear design laboratories (VNIIEF) published a technical paper describing explosive resistant containment vessels in detail. The paper described a need by the design laboratory in the late 1970s and early 1980s to develop explosive–resistant chambers “capable of hermetically holding inside its volume an explosive release of energy equivalent to” 150 to 200 kilograms of TNT.
  • According to the paper, the key was fiberglass-like material that allowed the vessel to expand and absorb energy without fracturing. Development of these vessels—called Kolba in Russian—was completed by 1983.
  • At a technical symposium at Sandia National Laboratories in 1993, Russian scientists proposed using the Kolba concept for creating explosion-resistant containers capable of fully containing up to 10-25 kt of TNT.56 When the United States assisted in the closure of the Soviet-era nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, Kolba explosive containment vessels were found in some of the tunnels.

Summarizing the information in the CTBT report:

  • The Russians did do weapon-related experiments in containment vessels.
  • The Russians developed high explosive vessel by 1983.
  • The Russians designed vessels that could contain 150 to 200 kgs of HE – 2 to almost 3 times the 70 kgs for the Parchin vessels.

Perhaps Russian vessels are like Matroiska dolls – a vessel, in a vessel, in a vessel… Perhaps that would explain why the Parchin vessel looks inadequate.

According to a Russian paper on explosion resistant container designer by scientists at Arzamas-16 (VNIIEF) published in 2006 in the AIP conference proceedings:

  • “The container AT595 designed in VNIIEF in the framework of international collaboration with the SNL (USA) is a cylindrical container with hemispherical end caps and a two-layer pressure vessel. The inner steel lining (Steel 12X18H10T) ensures leak tightness, and the outer layer is made of basalt composite and bears the load. Loading mouths are located at the end caps that are hermetically closed by steel lids. Packages of tied-wire fabric are used in the vessel as shrapnel protection, while the mouth lids are protected from shock-wave and fragment impacts by steel cylinders filled with polyfoam and covered with inner lids” (Development of A595 Explosive Resistant Container Design, Numerical, Theoretical and Experimental Justification of the Container Design Parameters, Abakumov, A. I. et al, VNIIEF, AIP Conf Proc, 849, 51 (2006).

According to the paper the vessel is a spherical HE charge, 8 kgs TNT-detonation cased in 35 kg of inert surround material. The container is:

  • 332 cm long
  • 98.5 cm diameter
  • 42 cm diameter for the working area

Or in another words a Matroiska explosive vessel.

US vessels for testing – according to the CTBT report:

  • Containment vessels have been used for decades by nuclear weapon development laboratories, including in the United States and other countries. These vessels have been used for a variety of purposes. For example, in the United States above-ground hydrodynamic experiments are conducted routinely to examine the implosion process of a warhead primary. For these experiments, the fissile material (weapons grade plutonium or uranium) is removed and a substitute material is used for the experiment.

To see how the US tests work watch YouTube:

Image: US DAHRT facility at LANL The vessel diameter is 6 ft or ~2.5 times smaller than the reported vessel at Parchin.

High Explosives Test

If we assume ISIS is correct and the diameter of the weapon is 55 cm, then estimating the mass of half a sphere of HE would weigh 72 kgs which is about the reported limits of 70 kgs HE.

If we consider the Spiegel article and assume the test article is ½ the diameter of the ISIS report – either because it is a different system or the test article is a ½ size mock-up of the final system- then a hemisphere of HE with a radius of 13.75 cm would weigh 12 kgs or significantly within the margin of the reported 70 kgs design limit for the vessel.

For more information on Danilenko go to the ISIS on his background. According ISIS Danilenko works for the military branch of the Iranian defense possibly working on weapons development.

I read several of his technical reports – it would appear he worked on both nanodiamonds and weapons high explosives work while at the Russian weapons laboratory, Chelyabinsk-70 (the second weapons laboratory in Russia).

High-speed cameras for explosives testing: 

ISIS has a good report covering the purchase by a German business man for an Iranian front company in 4/2007 of highly specialized streak cameras that can capture a high speed explosive test. Hmmm isn’t that odd after the US IC claimed that the Iranian weapons program was shut down back in 2003? So what other reasons would the Iranian’s have for purchasing ultra high speed cameras for $10’s of thousands of dollars? Lightning research?

Iran Nuclear – Military or Civilian?

Reading the November 8, 2011 IAEA report there is one important theme which may be missed – there are two programs within Iran – a civilian program under the AEOI, the Atomic Energy of Iran, and a military program under the Ministry of Defense. If you take the time to read the subtleties of the report you see that many key nuclear functions appear to take place within the military side – the defense side –of the Iranian government.

This would imply that the Iranian nuclear power program is in fact a cover for a military program rather than a purely civilian power program for electrical production.

IAEA- Can we Trust Them?

A common theme in many of the newspaper articles is that we can’t trust what the IAEA says. Why? Have the IAEA based their reports on bad data? It seems to me that they are more conservative in their findings and their reports than not.

The specific examples of the use of bad information have been used to justify defensive actions were not provided by the IAEA but rather the US intelligence community. A good book that overviews the conservative approach taken by the IAEA in the face of international pressure is The Age of Deception by El Baraidei, former head of the IAEA. An excellent book to read when considering the debate over the status of Iran’s nuclear program.

When I read that the IAEA is concerned that Iran may have a nuclear weapons program and they have pieced together significant amounts of information pointing to activity that needs additional elaboration on the part of the Iranians – I think its worth checking.

Ciao Susan

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  1. Susan Voss says:

    Per the August 30, 2012 IAEA report:

    Parchin: As stated in the Annex to the Director General’s November 2011 report, information provided to the Agency by Member States indicates that Iran constructed a large explosives containment vessel in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments. The information also indicates that this vessel was installed at the Parchin site in 2000. The location at the Parchin site of the vessel was only identified in March 2011. The Agency notified Iran of that location in January 2012.. Satellite imagery available to the Agency for the period from February 2005 to January 2012 shows virtually no activity at or near the building housing the containment vessel. However, since the Agency’s first request for access to this location, satellite imagery shows that extensive activities and resultant changes have taken place at this location. A number of satellite images of the location since
    February 2012 show: large amounts of liquid ‘run off’ emanating from the building in which the vessel is housed; equipment in open storage immediately outside the building; the removal of external
    fixtures from the building itself; and the presence of light and heavy vehicles. Satellite imagery shows that, as of May 2012, five other buildings or structures at the location had been demolished, and power lines, fences and all paved roads had been removed.

    Significant ground scraping and landscaping have been undertaken over an extensive area at and around the location, with new dirt roads established. Satellite images from August 2012 show the containment vessel building shrouded. In light of these extensive activities, the Agency’s ability to verify the information on which its concerns are based has been adversely affected and, when the Agency gains access to the location, its ability to conduct effective verification will have been significantly hampered.

    43. In a letter to the Agency dated 29 August 2012, Iran stated that the allegation of nuclear activities at the Parchin site is “baseless” and that “the recent activities claimed to be conducted in the vicinity
    of the location of interest to the Agency, has nothing to do with specified location by the Agency”.

    44. The activities observed and Iran’s letter of 29 August 2012 further strengthen the Agency’s assessment that it is necessary to have access to the location at Parchin without further delay.

    – Strong words for the IAEA: it is necessary to have access to the location at Parchin without further delay.

    Cheers Susan

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