(Read an update to this post, featuring imagery from 2009)
Iran’s nuclear program is again making the news cycles after the country admitted this week that it has built a second nuclear fuel processing plant, to complement the one at Natanz.
According to the New York Times, the admission by Iran came after it learned that western intelligence agencies knew of its existence, and indeed the US, UK and French leaders were just now on TV to accuse Iran of having concealed the plant from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for all the years it was under construction.
The New York Times has US government sources situating the new plant “inside a mountain near the ancient city of Qum,” and that alas is the most detail we can glean right now from public news sources.
Might it be enough to find this new plant in Google Earth, however? Not with certainty, but one place in particular looks like a very strong candidate. I’ll explain how I found it, you decide how likely it is to be the right place.
First, I turned on successive years of the “Digital Globe Coverage” layer in the “More” directory in the “Layers” sidebar of Google Earth, and went exploring around Qum (aka Qom).
The working assumption is that any satellite image tile taken all by itself as a “special request”, instead of as part of a long strip, tends to be taken at the behest of an organization that has good cause to investigate that region for something it might not have direct access to. This need not be an intelligence agency, it could also be an NGO, for example one that is interested in proliferation issues like ISIS:
With this search criteria in mind, two areas around Qum are found to be consistently the beneficiaries of such special requests. One of them is an Iranian missile test site some 40km ESE of Qum, and it is not near a mountain. The other one?
Well, it’s a mountain 35km NNW of Qum. And it has two big parallel roads driving straight into it:
Considering that one-ended tunnels are rare finds, and after a look around Qum to see if there might be other overlooked sites, this candidate site sure looks promising.
Here is the placemark for the location, with a bonus pointer to the missile testing site. Enjoy.
(One weird additional piece of information: The imagery all the way around the mountain is dated August 21, 2005, but the area immediately around the entrance of the tunnel comes with no date attached in Google Earth. Imagery metadata in Google Earth is almost never that granular. The imagery of the tunnels could be newer, as 2005 would be a long way back to be building this plant (though not the tunnel for the plant), but there is no clear seam of a more recent image being overlaid on a base image. So my guess is that the imagery of the tunnel is from 2005 or later.)