Danilenko and the Chamber of Secrets

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Let’s continue our tour through the Iranian nuclear program with a look at the man whose name would give you a fairly handy triple-word score were proper nouns playable in Scrabble: Vyacheslav Vasilevich Danilenko. That’s him in the picture above.

I think it’s safe to say that no other foreigner, apart from AQ Khan, has done so much for Iran’s nuclear weapon aspirations. If Iran ever manages to bolt a nuclear warhead onto a ballistic missile, they might as well wrap an argyle sweater around it as a tribute to VV Danilenko, such has been his input into critical areas of Iran’s nuclear weapons efforts.

To backtrack a bit – you’ll recall of course that Danilenko was the former Soviet Union nuclear weapon designer who, down on his luck in the late 1990s, fled the chilly plains of Chelyabinsk to help out Iran’s fledgling nuclear weapons program in return for a bag of cash. It was like a Tom Clancy novel come to life.

Danilenko, of course, denies any involvement with Iran’s nuclear weapons program – and has been quoted adopting a quite delusional level of faux innocence about the whole affair. A tip for Mr D: if you want to play down the extent of your ties with Tehran, maybe don’t get photographed in front of a Persian winged lion, which clearly takes pride of place on the mantle at the Danilenko family dacha.

But it’s worth taking a renewed look at the Danilenko file, because much of the commentary on it is mired in the kind of evidentiary quagmire of piecemeal, confusing details and denials so beloved by Tehran. And even the best analyses of the piece – like this one by Mark Fitzpatrick of ISIS – have kind of missed the forest for the trees in terms of why the Danilenko affair is so important.

Let me save you some work. Here’s the five most compelling points that have been disclosed so far about Danilenko:

  1. Vyacheslav Vasilevich Danilenko spent most of his career designing nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapon complex at Chelyabinsk.

  2. Danilenko was present in Iran from 1996 to 2002 – not uncoincidentally, during the apex of Iran’s AMAD nuclear weapons program.

  3. Danilenko was contracted by Seyyed Ali Abbas Shahmoradi Zavardeh of the Physics Research Centre , an organisation whose sole reason for existence was to covertly produce nuclear weapons.

  4. Danilenko provided design assistance to the construction of at least one explosive containment chamber in Iran. One of these chambers was built at Parchin and was perfectly suited to nuclear weapon implosion experiments.

  5. Danilenko provided Iran with the blueprint for a multi-point detonation system – a clever explosive design that greatly helps to reduce the size and weight of a nuclear weapon. (You can read more about that here ).

Keep these facts in mind when you trawl through the various writings about Danilenko.

What’s also worth remembering is that it’s all too easy to get a bit too excited about point four – the explosive containment chamber in Parchin that Danilenko helped build. That’s where the AMAD gang tried to see how well they could blow up a sphere of natural or depleted uranium (or maybe just a surrogate material) in order to test the validity of their nuclear weapon implosion system.

Sure, the Parchin saga is great fodder for anoraks and weirdly, the media loves it too. There’s satellite images of the building that houses the chamber. There’s bulldozers merrily razing a layer of topsoil as Iran plays its old game of clean-up-the-nuclear-site-before-bringing-in-the-IAEA. And every time Mark Fitzpatrick writes about the bloody place, it hits the New York Times or Washington Post front page, no matter how little of genuine strategic interest is still going on at Parchin (sample headline: Iranians Push Dirt Around at Place With Much Dirt).

The Problem with Parchin is twofold: first, maybe the AMAD crew exploded a bit of natural or depleted uranium inside Danilenko’s chamber of secrets – but if they blew up a surrogate material like tungsten or another heavy metal, there’s no chance that IAEA material sampling will find anything overly damning. And second, whatever was inside the chamber a year ago, or five years ago, or ten years ago – it’s been well cleaned out over the past year, so there might well just be a scourer and a dirty maid’s uniform left in it. So yes, it’s damning, but it’s only part of a bigger picture.

The most interesting question isn’t what’s inside the Danilenko chamber of secrets at Parchin, because we’re almost certainly going to be disappointed by the results.

The most interesting question is – what else did Danilenko provide to Iran?

If you want to answer this question, maybe start by taking a look at Danilenko’s scientific publications. The nanodiamond stuff is easy to find – and itself pretty damning – but there’s an even more important paper that has been overlooked by most analysts. It doesn’t hurt that this paper came out of the Federal Nuclear Center, All Russian Institute of Technical Physics, Chelyabinsk – they’re not making fine wines there , people. Chelyabinsk is a NUCLEAR WEAPON DESIGN LABORATORY.

This is the article:

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Interested? Let me spare you from having to track down a twenty-year old copy of an obscure physics journal: this article describes a diagnostic system to make sure that a nuclear weapon’s implosion system actually works. As Danilenko writes, (albeit in far less snappy prose) take something you want to implode – anything will do, but an aluminium hemispherical shell would be particularly good – stick some optical fibres inside it like one of these lamps then wire the fibres into an electronic display (nanosecond refresh rate please, so no clock radios or Casio watches). Get a high-speed camera ready, and then point it at the electronic display while you explode the hemispherical shell.

If you make the whole thing out of MS Paint and clip-art, like I did, it would look a bit like this:

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Much better in real life, but you get the idea. If the design of your implosion system is good enough – and you’ve wired the optical fibres correctly in your experiment – you should get a nice idea of whether you can implode a sphere of HEU or plutonium in such a way that will bang rather than bust.

I think it’s also a fairly safe bet that at the very least Danilenko made his friends in the Physics Research Centre and the AMAD nuclear weapons program aware of this article and its patently obvious applications to nuclear weapon design during his long stay in Iran.

It’s clear evidence that there was one than just one tool in the Danilenko nuclear weapon design toolbox.

So that’s point six for the Danilenko file:

  1. Danilenko also provided AMAD with a fibre-optic diagnostic system design that Iran used to conduct experiments on simultaneous detonation systems for nuclear weapons.

That’s not a bad track record.

But I’d still ask the question – what else did Danilenko provide Iran? Did he provide Iran with complete Soviet nuclear weapon designs, leaving Iran only to worry about how to make it rather than designing it from the ground up?

And even more important, did he introduce other experts to the Iranians? Was he the only one?

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