AI Reveals Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Factory

Iran is though to be only a few years away from completing an underground centrifuge assembly hall at its Natanz nuclear facility, according to a recently released analysis from Stanford University's Center for Security and International CooperationIran will soon be able to rebuild and extend its ability to enrich uraniumand the new facility is being built deep within a mountain, where it is less vulnerable to air strikes, and hidden from imaging satellites.

CISAC analysts used AI tools from the geospatial analytics firm Orbital Insight to help them track construction workers at the site. They found that they could track labor fluctuations related to last year’s explosion at Natanz, and others related to the excavation and construction of the new assembly hall. 

The researchers determined the Iranians began construction on the new site between August and September last year. They observed a nine-fold increase in vehicles at the site over the next three months, “indicating a significant growth in activity,” they wrote in June in the journal Janes Intelligence Review. 

The research paper describes the essential role that artificial intelligence played in the analysis. “Orbital Insight’s object detection algorithm counted vehicles in 84 satellite images collected between May 2018 and May 2021, offering insight into activity at the existing and future facilities at Natanz. The vehicle activity was tracked specifically in the parking lot outside the main Natanz site, as well as at the construction support facility at Natanz South, suggesting that the vehicles at each site were directly related to operations or construction activity.”

The vehicle activity dropped off during the spring, the researchers wrote. Based on that and other factors, such as the hardening of the roads and the construction of a new parking lot, they determined that “the facility at this point has, for the most part, been completed." The construction of the new assembly hall shows that Iran is “working very hard to maintain their nuclear enrichment capability” and is “reinforcing their nuclear weapons capability.” 

As the volume of satellite imagery explodes, along with other potentially useful data sources such as social media posts, telephonic and other data, AI will play a growing role in helping analysts reach conclusions including some that they may not have been able to reach before. 

The next challenge is finding new data science techniques that researchers might apply across different types of analysis, to see, for instance, if some aspect of machine vision could would be relevant to the problem.

Recently, a fire and an explosion struck a centrifuge production plant above Iran's underground Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, analysts said, one of the most-tightly guarded sites in all of the Islamic Republic after earlier acts of sabotage there. The damaged building inside the nuclear complex at Natanz is right next to the underground production facilities where in 2010, a highly-sophisticated nation state cyber attack was orchestrated by the United States and Israel, called Stuxnet.

Stuxnet destroyed a thousand centrifuges and set back Iran’s nuclear program for years, however, the new incident appears to be fairly rudimentary, it lacks the sophistication of the cyber attacks orchestrated by Israel and the US 10 years ago. 

Times of Israel:       Forbes:     TechXplore:        NYT:       BBC:       BBC:        DefenseOne

 

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