Former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley examines what the IAEA already knows about Iran’s nuclear program and debunks myths and misconceptions.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
On Monday, the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, announced that Iran agreed to wider scrutiny over its nuclear program. It would allow managed access by international inspectors to two key nuclear facilities, the Gachin uranium mine and the heavy-water production plant being built at Arak. This news comes on the heels of the breakdown of talks between the P5+1 group and Iran. And parties have entered the talks with the goal that if Iran provided verifiable assurances that it would not build a nuclear weapon, then the West would ease economic sanctions.
Now joining us to debunk the myths and shed some light on what inspectors know about Iran’s nuclear program already is Robert Kelley. He’s a nuclear engineer who has worked in the U.S. nuclear complex for more than 30 years. He assisted the IAEA as the director in the Iraq Action Team.
Thank you so much for joining us, Robert.
ROBERT KELLEY, FORMER NUCLEAR WEAPONS ANALYST, LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY: Good evening. How are you, Jessica?
DESVARIEUX: Doing well.
So let’s first talk about what we already know about these two quote-unquote nuclear facilities–at least that’s what the media is calling them. Can you please just debunk some of the myths? And tell us: what do we actually know about, let’s say, for example, Gachin?
KELLEY: Well, I think the important thing is that IAEA and Iran have agreed to some symbolic gestures that replace some of the very contentious things they were doing.
So going to Gachin and going to the Arak heavy-water plant are sort of inoffensive [inaud.] that, again, are symbolic but don’t have a lot of technical significance.
The first thing you need to know is they’re not nuclear facilities, by legal definition. So people who are calling them nuclear facilities don’t know what they’re talking about.
The mine is a mine. And IAEA has been there in the past. They’ve inspected that mine on a voluntary basis when Iran said, okay, we don’t have to take you there, but we will. That was quite a few years ago, I’m thinking four or five years ago. By going to Gachin, they will learn that, yes, it’s a uranium mine. They will see on the ground what they already see in satellite images. And we all know that the facility is operating. But it’s not a nuclear facility, and they’ve been there before. So it won’t answer any of the serious questions at hand.
The second one is the Arak heavy-water production plant. IAEA also [inaud.] it’s not a nuclear facility. It doesn’t handle nuclear [material]. It’s not nuclear by legal definitions. It’s a big kind of chemical plant. It looks like an oil refinery that turns light water into heavy water by separating out the heavy molecules. But it’s a chemical plant. And so in the process of going there, they will also learn that the plant is operational, that it’s produced a lot of heavy water for the reactor. And that’s probably something we know before we even go.
DESVARIEUX: Let’s talk about Arak a little bit further. You say it’s a chemical plant, but we have the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, who said in an interview on France Inter Radio that without an Iranian pledge to stop work at that particular Arak reactor, from which plutonium can be extracted and used for bomb-grade material, will be faced with a fait accompli. Is Arak really a threat?
KELLEY: Well, Jessica, let’s draw a distinction between the two plants at Arak. One is this great big heavy-water plant that looks like a very large oil refinery. That’s not a nuclear facility. It’s just changing the chemical form of water for use in the reactor. The reactor is across the street. And the reactor could be used to make plutonium for weapons. In fact, many proliferants have used heavy-water reactors of about that size to make plutonium for weapons in the past.
The difference is that this time the IAEA is inspecting the facility, will be inspecting it when it’s operating, and will understand what the facility’s actually doing. So we’re not talking about what India did or what Pakistan did or what Israel did with their 40-megawatt reactors that weren’t being safeguarded. This one is safeguarded by IAEA.
The second point is that the reactor doesn’t do anything without fuel, and so if you don’t have fuel, the reactor doesn’t run. If the reactor doesn’t run, it doesn’t make plutonium.
So IAEA will be extremely interested in looking at the reactor and looking at the fuel fabrication plant. By looking at the fuel fabrication plant and understanding how much fuel that plant is making and how it’s being used in the reactor, IAEA will be able [inaud.] degree of certainty the reactor is being used for weapons purposes or is not.
So IAEA’s being there makes the facility not really very dangerous.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. And in a New York Times article, they point out to this promise of wider scrutiny did not extend to this contentious location, the Parchin military site that’s Southwest of Tehran. You’ve been on The Real News before, speaking about this site. Can you just get us up to speed? What do we actually know about what’s going on there?
KELLEY: Well, the arguments about Parchin have really been kind of silly, and they’ve reached the level of a schoolyard fight. IAEA doesn’t have a strong legal reason to go to Parchin. It’s not a declared nuclear facility, and it’s probably not a nuclear facility at all, but someone has given IAEA some intelligence saying that nuclear activities maybe went on there sometime in the past.
If you examine that intelligence, it’s filled with holes. The facility that’s supposed to be built there was being designed after IAEA said it was installed. There are things like that that don’t make sense. There are things that say that this site has been cleaned up. And yet if you look at the satellite imagery, you can see that large parts of the site that are adjacent to the building are not being cleaned up and others are. So it makes no sense to say this is a nuclear facility.
By continuing to beat on this dead horse, IAEA has been one of the stumbling blocks in the big negotiations such as the P5+1 are having in Geneva. By getting IAEA’s silly request to go to Parchin off the table, now we have a possibility that the serious partners in the negotiations in Geneva can reach accord.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. And in what way do you think this deal that the IAEA struck with Iran is a way for them to save face?
KELLEY: Well, I think it’s a tremendous saving face. If you look at the communiqué that came out today, there were six things that they agreed to do. All of them were symbolic. None of them were significant. None of them impact the weapons allegations for Iran [incompr.] things in there like the IAEA will talk to Iran about the 16 nuclear reactors that they plan to build over the next 20 to 50 years. Does anybody think there’s any significance in that whatsoever? It’s just one of six things they can put on a list to say they’re talking.
But the really sticking issues–Parchin and the possible weapons [incompr.] Iran’s program have disappeared from the communiqué. And that means, I think, that both sides have agreed to step back and let the P5+1 do their job and not be embroiled by this schoolyard fight in Tehran.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, Robert Kelley, in part two we’ll continue this discussion, and we’ll discuss how Iran can be more transparent, and if they’ve already been quite transparent.
Thank you so much for joining us.
KELLEY: You’re welcome.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.