Nuclear Iran: Sites and potential targets

  • Nuclear Iran: Sites and potential targets

    Iran nuclear facility CBS/AP/Digital Globe

    The existence of this uranium enrichment facility was only confirmed by Iran in 2009. At the time it was empty, but since the summer of 2011, Iran has been transferring centrifuges to the site, which is buried almost 300 feet beneath a mountain and is protected by significant air defenses.

    Israel and the U.S. think it's likely that if Iran were to try and start making uranium enriched to weapons-grade (greater than 90 percent enrichment), they'd do it at Fordo, as it is their best-protected enrichment site.

    Paul Brannan, a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security, says Iran likely designed and built Fordo to be the "breakout" facility - where their ostensibly civilian nuclear program would quietly push forward into the weapons development realm.

    Fordo is "obviously for nuclear weapons hedging, to preserve centrifuges in case of an attack" on other, more vulnerable facilities, adds Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert on Iran's nuclear program and the director of the nonproliferation and disarmament program at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

    Fordo was only built to hold 3,000 centrifuges - not enough for a nuclear power program, but enough for a nuclear weapons program.

    The centrifuges at Fordo are currently producing uranium enriched to 19.75 percent, which is used for medical purposes, according to the Iranian government. It is not that much of a jump, though, says Brannan, to take that low-enriched uranium (LEU - considered anything under 20 percent enrichment) and turn it into high-enriched uranium (HEU - anything greater than 20 percent enrichment).

    Fitzpatrick explains that any HEU can be useful to a weapons program, but to really be considered efficient enough for use in a warhead, uranium must be enriched to about 90 percent - what is considered weapons-grade.

    It's believed that Iran is producing and stockpiling increasing amounts of 19.75 percent enriched LEU at Fordo. The IAEA's most recent report, in February 2012, cited the installation of some 700 new centrifuges at Fordo, but they appear to be missing rotors - a key component - which leads experts to doubt the Iranians actually have an increased enrichment capacity at the facility.

    Nonetheless, Fordo's heavy fortifications brought the site to the forefront of discussion as rumors of a possible Israeli strike swirled. CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports that not even America's most powerful conventional weapon - a 30,000-pound bunker buster bomb - can penetrate deep enough to destroy the Fordo complex.

    However, U.S. military commanders say it would likely be possible to render Fordo unusable - at least temporarily - by sealing off the underground chamber with strikes on the entrances and on the ventilation system, which is external.