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In Tennessee, a mock Iranian nuke facility tests breakout time

US scientists provide information to negotiators on Tehran’s program, based on a replica, the New York Times reports

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Scientists there constructed a replica Iranian nuclear facility to better calculate Iran's capabilities. (Photo credit: US Geological Survey)
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Scientists there constructed a replica Iranian nuclear facility to better calculate Iran's capabilities. (Photo credit: US Geological Survey)

In the forests approximately 25 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee lies an unlikely tool in the US’s efforts for world peace — an Iranian nuclear facility.

Well, a replica of an Iranian nuclear facility.

Scientists in the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation built the classified replica to provide the president and other diplomats with real technical information, not just estimations, on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Using plans believed to have been recovered by a joint US-Israeli cyber attack on Iranian enrichment plants, and centrifuges surrendered by Libya over a decade ago, the team at the Tennessee center set up a replica of an Iranian nuclear processing facility to offer concrete information on Iran’s breakout time to those involved in the ongoing nuclear talks. This information is critical for negotiators to make better recommendations and demands, officials said.

“We know a lot more about Iranian centrifuges than we would otherwise,” said a nuclear specialist familiar with the site and its covert operations.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee is one of several US facilities studying Iran's capabilities to prevent nuclear proliferation. (Photo credit: Bill McChesney/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee is one of several US facilities studying Iran’s capabilities to prevent nuclear proliferation. (Photo credit: Bill McChesney/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and other sites in the United States developed the country’s nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War. Now, those same laboratories are working with — and against — one another to help prevent the creation of more atomic weapons.

As questions came in from negotiators in Lausanne, Switzerland it was the task of those labs to find the answers.

“It’s what our people love to do,” said Thom Mason, the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “It can be very rewarding.”

And due to the high stakes of these scientists’ calculations, the other labs must relentlessly check their peers’ findings, playing into the facilities’ friendly, professional rivalries.

In addition to providing answers to negotiators on output capacities and time frames, the scientists also work with their Iranian counterparts and negotiators to develop alternative uses for existing Iranian nuclear facilities.

A satellite image of Iran's Fordo uranium enrichment facility (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe)
A satellite image of Iran’s Fordo uranium enrichment facility (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe)

The Fordo nuclear center, for instance, is buried deep underground, so far that even most “bunker buster” bombs would not be able to destroy it. But last summer in Vienna, the New York Times reported, Iranian and US scientists discussed the possibility of converting the subterranean fortress into something positive.

Fordo’s location, under layer upon layer of rock, makes it ideal for an observatory to track the invisible rays given off by cosmic activity, without distracting signals that the surrounding rock could filter out.

With a mock-up of an Iranian enrichment plant providing technical data and teams of scientists working on peaceful uses for preexisting nuclear facilities, the question remains whether the US’s lofty aspirations will be accepted by Iran.

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