Back in the days of the Manhattan Project, the government set up a string of National Labs devoted to creating nuclear weapons. Now, those labs are playing a role in the opposite task: stopping them. A secret facility in Tennessee that replicates Iran’s nuclear capabilities was key to the recent negotiations.
The deal, which seeks to slow down Iran’s nuclear capabilities, really gets into the nitty gritty logistics of nuclear physics — such as exactly how many centrifuges Iran is allowed. The US was only able to come up with different scenarios because it keeps a classified replica of Iran’s nuclear facilities at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The replica contains centrifuges surrendered by Libya as well as newer ones, according to the New York Times.
Knowledge from Y-12 and other National Labs all contributed to the delicate Iran negotiations. For example, it also let negotiators propose alternatives for existing facilities like Fordo, an uranium enrichment plant hidden deep in the mountains. How might Fordo be repurposed for peaceful research? The Times explains:
The answer lay in the deep-underground nature of the site, which made it excellent for an observatory to track invisible rays from cosmic explosions, opening a new window onto the universe. (The rocky strata of the site would filter out extraneous signals.) Another idea was to use the installed centrifuges for purifying rare forms of elements used in medicine rather than for uranium.
In early March, Oak Ridge in Tennessee got a call from the negotiators. They needed to learn more about the idea of purifying elements, to make sure that it was possible and that the equipment left in the mountain could not be easily turned to producing nuclear fuel.
Ultimately, Oak Ridge decided it was logistically feasible — whether it’s political acceptable is still up to the diplomats. The next round of talks start this week.
Picture: Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. DOE