Evidence from Imagery: The Iran and Syrian Nuclear Programs - An Open & Shut Case?



Frank Pabian,

Date and Time

November 5, 2008 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


Reuben W. Hills Conference Room

FSI Contact

Justin C. Liszanckie

Abstract: In this age of increasing "Global Transparency," commercial satellite imagery has now made it possible for anyone to remotely peer "over the fence" and view what heretofore had been otherwise impossible...clandestine nuclear facilities (most significantly, those capable of producing fissile material suitable for use in nuclear weapons). The synergistic combination of readily available tools: personal computers, the internet, three-dimensional virtual globe visualization applications such as Google Earth, and high resolution commercial satellite imagery has gone beyond what anyone could have imaged just a few years ago. The downside of all this is that those who want to keep their clandestine nuclear facilities and associated activities from being either detected, identified, and/or monitored, are becoming more adept in their use of camouflage, concealment, and deception.

Iran is one such case where it has followed a steep learning curve of adapting to the threat that overhead observation can pose. After repeated dissident group revelations about Iran's clandestine nuclear facilities, together with confirming media broadcast of commercial satellite images of those facilities followed by verification inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); the government of Iran has become increasingly aware of this threat and gone to greater and greater lengths to try and defeat it. Iran's cover-up tactics have improved with time...from concealed infrastructure and false cover stories (Natanz)...to refurbishment and sanitization of facilities following removal of incriminating equipment (Kalaye Electric and Lashkar Abad), to the wholesale razing of facilities together with the removal of dirt and vegetation to defeat IAEA forensic environmental sampling (Lavizan).

While the international community continues to debate the issue of whether or not Iran's nuclear program is purely peaceful in nature (helping it to stay an "open case"), Iran is defiantly pursuing its goal of fissile material production. Syria, on the other hand (evidently together with North Korea), was also quite aware of the overhead observation threat, taking great pains to conceal its plutonium production reactor at Al-Kibar. Syria disguised the true function of the facility by employing minimal site security (no fences or guard towers), having minimal support infrastructure (with non visible powerlines and only buried water lines), not installing a telltale reactor ventilation stack or cooling tower, hiding the reactor building in a ravine (terrain masking), and finally camouflaging the facility with a false façade to make it appear as a byzantine fortress. Nonetheless, despite all those steps, a leak of ground-level reactor construction and interior photographs, which formed the basis for the subsequent bombing of the facility by Israel, successfully thwarted that effort (the "closed case?"). Rather than confessing the truth about al-Kibar, the Syrian government rushed to remove all traces of the destroyed reactor and supplant it with a new larger footprint building for as yet unknown purposes while continuing to claim it was previously only a disused military warehouse. The IAEA asked d Syria for permission to inspect not only the Al-Kibar site, but reportedly up to three other sites thought to be associated with it. The Syrians refused access to all but the now heavily sanitized Al-Kibar location. We must now all await the IAEA report on the findings of that singular onsite inspection.

Frank Pabian is a Senior Nonproliferation Infrastructure Analyst at Los Alamos National Laboratory who has over 35 years experience in the nuclear nonproliferation field including six years with the Office of Imagery Analysis and 18 years with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's "Z" Division.  Frank also served as a Chief Inspector for the IAEA during UN inspections in Iraq from 1996-1998 focusing on "Capable Sites." In December 2002, Frank served as one of the first US nuclear inspectors back in Iraq with UN/IAEA. While at Los Alamos, Frank has developed and presented commercial satellite imagery based briefings on foreign clandestine nuclear facilities to the International Nuclear Suppliers Group, the IAEA, NATO, and the Foreign Ministries of China and India on behalf of the NNSA and STATE.

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