U.S. and France dismiss results as “politics not physics,” but the threat is real
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (right) claimed this week in a speech marking the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that it has the capacity to make “weapons grade” uranium which could lead to the fabrication of an operational nuclear bomb. Iran has also been developing a 1,200 mile range ballistic missile which could be used to deliver one. The question for Western powers, and especially Israel which Iran has repeatedly vowed to destroy, is how credible are these claims?
The immediate responses from the U.S. and France to Iran’s latest statement about its nuclear program are its not credible. Both nations cited assessments by nonproliferation experts that show setbacks rather than progress with uranium enrichment technologies.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, in an unusually blunt statement, said Iran “… has made a series of statements that are … based on politics not physics.”
“We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they say they are enriching.”
In Paris French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told a radio program, “Americans do not believe, any more than us, that Iran is currently capable of enriching uranium to 80%.”
While diplomats struggle to find new ways to bring pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program, it is important to assess what Iran really has, and does not have, in term of a nuclear weapons manufacturing capability.
Setbacks in centrifuge operations
The Washington Post reported Feb 11 that Iran has experienced a series of setbacks in its efforts to produce enriched uranium both at the commercial level of 3-5% and at higher levels up to 20%.
According to a report by David Albright (right) at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), production has fallen off significantly at the Natanz plant. (NTI maps) More than half of Natanz’s nearly 9,000 centrifuges were idle at the end of 2009.
Equipment malfunctions and obsolete centrifuge technologies are said to be the reasons for the slowdown in enriched uranium production. Albright did not rule out sabotage as a cause of the breakdowns.
The ISIS report is supported by a parallel assessment from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The Washington Post reported that Ivan Oelrich, Vice-President of the FAS security program, said that Iran’s nuclear technology development is being pushed too fast for political reasons.
A third think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the newspaper the breakdowns of the gas centrifuges could result in a delay of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Patrick Clawson, deputy director, told the Post, “Whether Iran has deliberately slowed down or been forced to, it stretches out the time.”
All three think tanks agree that while Iran is having problems now with gas centrifuge technology that is 50 years old, it is only a matter of time before it masters the machines and begins production of weapons grade uranium from them. None of the think tanks suggested that U.S. policy options should consider near-term technical difficulties as a solution to Iran’s nuclear menace in the Middle East
Known and unknown weapons sites
The most significant uncertainty about what Iran is doing centers on a formerly secret uranium enrichment plant built into a mountain inside a military base outside the city of Qom [links to images via Google search]. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) worries that Iran may have other undeclared nuclear facilities also hidden away in other underground sites.
The agency’s inspectors say that such a facility can only have one purpose and that is to build a nuclear weapon or be able to assemble one relatively quickly from components. In September 2009 IAEA made it official saying Iran had violated its international obligations to report new nuclear facilities to the agency.
Iran has two motivations for the site at Qom. The first is to take low-enriched uranium from Natanz to spin it up to levels above 80% U235 which is the minimum level for bomb materials. The second is to duplicate an above ground uranium conversion plants at Esfahan and Fasa (NTI maps), which take yellowcake from a uranium mill and turn it into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas. The gas is then spun in centrifuges separating the slightly lighter U235 isotope from the heavier U238.
Iran is following the example of North Korea which reportedly has over 300 miles of underground tunnels housing its nuclear weapons manufacturing plants. In both cases, once the overburden of rock above the plants exceeds about 100 feet, the underground factories are effectively immune from direct aerial bombardment even by so-called “bunker buster” bombs.
Policy parallels for Iran and North Korea
Iran may have the same objective as North Korea in pursuing development of nuclear weapons. Both nations want to demonstrate they can build them as a deterrents, but might not actually assemble a working weapon capable of being delivered to a target 1,200 away via an intermediate range missile.
North Korea is not a government as we understand the idea in the West. It is a collection of criminal families. Think Sopranos rather than Politburo. The whole country is probably run by less than a few hundred people at the top of each family tree.
Their primary motivation is self-preservation of power. While North Korea has exhibited some bizarre behaviors, they probably are rational enough not to actually mount a nuclear warhead on a missile and threaten to shoot it at someone.
North Korea’s army is no match for the combination of the U.S. and South Korea. The development of nuclear bomb making capability is seen as a deterrent designed to keep conventional armies at bay and to avoid the threat of tens of millions of deaths on the Korean peninsula.
Iran’s sociopathic leaders exhibit some of the same qualities including xenophobia, adherence to a “rejectionist” philosophy as a basis for legitimacy, governmental demands for blind obedience by the masses, and with the additional unique overlay of Islam. There are other differences and that is Iran is better fed, has fuel for transport, and access to western goods and services including some information over the Internet when it is not blocked for political reasons.
Can Iran make HEU?
What Iran is probably talking about when it refers to 10 new enrichment facilities are new capabilities across the entire nuclear fuel cycle. These include enrichment plants, but also precursors such as mills to turn uranium ore into Yellowcake, conversion facilities to make the Uranium Hexafluoride needed for the enrichment plants, and fuel fabrication facilities to make the fuel pellets and assemblies.
Iran will have considerable difficulty executing a plan costing tens of billions in a short period of time. For instance, in the U.S. construction of a new $3 billion enrichment plant takes three years and that’s after two years of design work.
Uranium enriched to 20% is not weapons grade material. It is suitable as fuel for nuclear reactors to make medical isotopes and for fuel in ships and submarines. Some Soviet naval reactors ran as high as 35%.
Weapons grade uranium is at least 80% U235. It is called “highly enriched uranium” or HEU. That said it is a fast if expensive path to reach weapons grade levels of enrichment once engineers prove they can reach 20%, but these are two profoundly different numbers.
Iran has all the pieces of the complete fuel cycle, but it is not proven that it can make a bomb. That next step requires very different capabilities.
Can Iran make a bomb?
Even after Iran has 50-60 pounds of HEU, it will still need a lot more high tech capabilities to build a bomb. For examples, even a rudimentary device needs special electronics to detonate the conventional explosives in a shaped charge to implode the HEU core. Iran got some of its nuclear technology from Pakistan via black market smuggling and semi-official intermediaries. This unclassified image is of a "gun" device. An implosion device would need additional technology including high speed switches and a beryllium reflector to work.
Another issue is what kind of command and control systems will Iran use to prevent unauthorized detonation of a nuclear device. Given the multiple groups which contend for power in a theocratic regime, the possibility of compromise of the civilian-military relationships by rogue jihadists is an ever present threat.
Intelligence estimates are all over the map whether Iran can make a nuclear bomb. Clearly, Iran wants the West to believe it can, but in pursuing what may be a gigantic bluff, it threatens its own interests. The West and Israel must take the threat seriously until evidence proves otherwise.
No plutonium from reprocessing
One area where North Korea and Iran diverge is that Iran has not developed nuclear fuel reprocessing capabilities to separate plutonium from spent fuel. This is a dirty business which requires extensive and expensive infrastructure, and a lot of nitric acid, and which produces a less pure poorer grade of plutonium than by other methods such as special reactors to make plutonium. [Addendum: See this explanation about reprocessing spent fuel.]
Also, there is a staffing issue. You don't run one of these places with help from the local chicken farm. It takes several years of hands-on training for a skilled operator to manage the remote control tools and systems needed to manage the highly radioactive materials.
It creates a large waste volume is created of liquid radioactive material which requires a tank farm to manage it. For instance, the infrastructure of the now decommissioned Idaho Chemical Processing Plant is easily visible from low earth orbit satellites. Putting these facilities underground still requires electricity transmission to the site, rail and truck transport, as well as procurement of sophisticated equipment and materials.
The reason Iran has not pursued reprocessing is that it has no commercial reactors producing spent nuclear fuel. The Russians only agreed to provide fuel for the 1,000 MW VVER commercial reactor at Bushehr on condition that it will take back the spent fuel.
France and the U.S. are now working to convince China, Russia, Brazil, and other U.N. Security Council Members to back a new, fourth round of sanctions against Iran. The danger is that in response Iran might take pre-emptive action to close the world’s oil supply choke point which is the Straits of Hormuz (map right) cutting off oil shipments to much of the world from the Middle East.
Military action by the U.S., France, and other nations to reopen the narrow waterway could succeed, but the resulting “security premium” for oil prices might trigger a new round of contractions among battered global economies.
It is outside the scope of this article to speculate whether Israel would make a pre-emptive military strike against one or more of Iran’s nuclear fuel facilities. Even if they did, the scope of Iran’s infrastructure is already so vast that knocking out one above ground plant might not delay for very long Iran’s apocalyptic path towards building a capability to deploy nuclear weapons. Regime change and a more rational top echelon in charge of a now thoroughly traumatized country may be the only real solution.
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