The Mystery of Azgir: Part Five

This Pressurized Water Reactor Vessel used in the first commercial nuclear power plant, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, is roughly the same size as the chamber designed by Danilenko during his time in Iran. Manufacturing it and transporting it are difficult industrial activities for a developing economy such as Iran. (


Connections to Iran, V. V. Danilenko and VNIITF

By Robert Kelley

In November 2011, the IAEA Safeguards Report on Iran noted that the Agency has “strong indications that the development by Iran of the high explosives initiation system, and its development of the high speed diagnostic configuration used to monitor related experiments, were assisted by the work of a foreign expert who was not only knowledgeable in these technologies, but who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career with this technology in the nuclear weapon programme of the country of his origin”.

This individual was subsequently identified by Western diplomats close to the IAEA as Vycheslav V. Danilenko, a former Soviet nuclear scientist with experience in diamond production experiments in containment spheres. Employed for many years at the Soviet nuclear weapons laboratory VNIITF at Snezhinsk (aka Chelyabinsk-70) in the Ural Mountains south of Yekaterinburg, Danilenko worked in the nuclear weapons programme, specialising in research into explosive compaction phenomena, such as artificial diamond production. Following the layoffs at Snezhinsk in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he moved to Ukraine to try to establish a commercial interest in artificial diamond production. There he attracted the attention of Iranian clients and was recruited by Iran to be an advisor to their explosives programmes. The activities alluded to by the IAEA stem from his work in Iran where he consulted on high explosive techniques and even admittedly tried to help Iran build a much smaller, but still significant, diamond production facility.

Concerns stem from the dual-use that explosive compression techniques may have, since they can be used to compress fissile material in an implosion nuclear device. In the case of Danilenko, the scientist’s synthetic-diamonds business also had the potential to provide a plausible explanation for contact with senior Iranian scientists. Danilenko has consistently denied that he ever knowingly aided Iran’s nuclear programme saying in 2011 that “I am not a father of Iran’s nuclear programme”

Danilenko’s 2003 book, Sintez i Spekanie Almaza Vzryvom (Explosive Synthesis and Sintering of Diamonds) features his work on artificial diamonds and precise descriptions of the Azgir sphere, stating it was one of two similar chambers. He also provides photos of the 12-metre sphere as it was being emplaced at Azgir. Danilenko claims that the Yava sphere was successfully tested with up to 1,000 kg of explosive yield and other sources agree. He states clearly that he personally was involved with experiments in a 12-metre diameter sphere to produce artificial diamonds. He mentions that a 145 kg of TG-40 explosive (RDX/TNT) experiment was done with his participation in Azgir’s sister sphere. The purpose of this experiment was to produce artificial diamonds in a “water shell”. The watershell water cooling could protect a chamber being used for other things as it reduces the blast loading. This is completely consistent with the reference in the Khariton biography, and the Israeli diamond industry brief.

Danilenko, however, does not speak of what became of the other sphere. Certainly satellite imagery analysts would have been following Severodvinsk closely and would have noted two shipments, although the fate of the second sphere is likely still classified.


Despite being linked by the media to IAEA references to an explosive chamber at the Iranian military factory site at Parchin, no commercially available satellite imagery is available that shows a containment chamber at the Parchin site
. Instead, a building has been identified whose roof obstructs any potential view. The Parchin chamber is reportedly not a sphere, but has been identified by the IAEA as a cylinder of roughly 19 m in length and 4.5 m in diameter
. This would give an approximate volume of 302m3. Not only is this smaller than Azgir’s volume of 905m3, in any testing chamber, it is the chamber’s diameter that is the critical dimension for explosive containment, the 4.5 m diameter is much smaller than Azgir’s 12 m diameter

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In his 2003 book, Danilenko claims he designed a chamber with a length of 19 m and 4.6 m in diameter with a volume of 315 m3. He believed it could contain 70 kg of high explosive force. These values are not wildly inconsistent and suggest that Danilenko would have been a very valuable consultant to Iran given his experience with the Azgir diamond sphere. Although possibly designed there is no evidence beyond the IAEA November 2011 report that the cylinder was ever built, let alone installed at Parchin.

Restarting Yava

In 2003, Kazakhstan began teaming with the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna near Moscow, and VNIIEF was invited to join as well, to explore restarting the facility. The Yava facility was idle from the early 1990s, probably due to the collapse of much of the Soviet research infrastructure
. The 10-year delay from 2003 until 2013 to restart Yava suggests a lack of commitment on the part of the participants.

Any facility involved in very large high explosive experiments must be carefully maintained, however, satellite imagery of the site indicates that the main components are completely exposed to the weather. In addition, the production of artificial diamonds by explosive compaction is a complex process with numerous potential pitfalls, so it will be difficult for Kazakhstan to reactivate this technology and rediscover these skills.

PART SIX, THE FINALA Long History of Mistakes will be published on 18 July 2018.