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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Iran: Two routes to a bomb 


Iran announced today that it has opened its 40 megawatt heavy-water reactor. I confess that I am no expert in nuclear technology, and do not even know enough at a pop level to write without grave risk of error. However, I can quote from a previous post, which was essentially my notes from a "roundtable discussion" on Iran at Princeton University at the end of March.

Professor von Hippel gave an interesting technical presentation about Iran's nuclear options, the sum and substance of which is that they are building their power program specifically around "dual use" technologies for which there are alternatives. If their sole concern was to build a power system, they could do so in ways that are much less inflammatory.

"It's a tale of two isotopes, and two routes to the bomb." U-235 will sustain a fission chain reaction if separated, and U-238 if turned into plutonium. Iran is pursuing both methods.

Iran is furthest along in separating out U-235 using gas centrifuges. You fill a spinning cylinder with a gaseous uranium. The heavier molecules go closer to the wall of the centrifuge, and a scoop skims them off. For a power reactor, you need a 4% concentration, but for weapons you need a 90% concentration. A cascade for power generation requires 987 centrifuges to get to 4% concentration, and a weapons grade cascade rquires around 4000 centrifuges (see, for example, a captured Libyan design). Professor von Hippel showed a slide of first-generation Urenco centrifuges in the Netherlands in the 1970s, a vast room that appeared larger than an airplane hanger with thousands of the things, all spinning down U-235.

Iran has build underground centrifuge halls, suitable for housing 50,000 of them. Professor von Hippel displayed a satellite image of the Natanz facility, which revealed the constructon of two larged centrifuge halls, plus a pilot plant for perfecting the technique. You can see a copy of the satellite image here.

What could Iran do with the 1000 centrifuges in the pilot plant?
Master the technology for commercial-scale enrichment.

Make enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb in one year using natural-uranium feed.

Produce low-enriched uranium for a year and then enrich the product to enough for a bomb in two months.

Iran could also try to build a clandestine enrichment plant.

No one has argued that Iran could produce enough HEU for a single nuclear weapon before 2009. (emphasis in original slide)

There is also the plutonium route -- India's chosen path, for example, and Israel's. Iran is building a 40 megawatt plant, which could produce enough inventory for a couple of Nagasaki-sized bombs a year.

Iran is pursuing two tracks in the development of is nuclear program, both of which could lead to a nuclear weapon, and both of which have alternative routes that are less provocative. If I understood Professor von Hippel correctly, we thought in March that the U235 strategy -- requiring centrifuges -- was further along than the heavy water reactor strategy. Does today's news reveal the judgement of March to have been incorrect? If you know more than I do, which is likely, offer your thoughts and links in the comments to this post.

Thoughtful dovish observers obviously do not believe that the case has been made that Iran is in fact developing a nuclear weapon, but that misses the point. Whether or not Iran is actually developing a weapon, it can choose to make the world nervous or comfortable on a question of staggering geopolitical moment. It has consciously chosen to make the world nervous because it is hoping to exploit the ambiguity for advantage. Whatever the reality of Iran's weapons program, there is no question that it is trying to gain the advantage of having one. The West needs a strategy to deny Iran that advantage, whether or not it finds sufficient evidence of a weapons program to launch a preemptive war. Iran needs to be punished not for having a nuclear program per se, but for intentionally promoting the insecurity of other countries. Indeed, if Iran never did that, nobody would much worry that it was developing a bomb.

5 Comments:

By Blogger Tom, at Sat Aug 26, 10:10:00 AM:

"No one has argued that Iran could produce enough HEU for a single nuclear weapon before 2009."

This makes two presumptions: 1) That we have good intel on what is going on inside Iran now. 2) That Iranian bomb development proceeds in a linear, predictable, path.

Both assumptions are questionable. We learned from Iraq to question our intel more closely. History is also not encouraging; the USSR, China, and India all got the bomb before our intel told us they would.

Assumption #2 does not take into account cooperation among these rogue nations. The discovery of the A.Q. Khan netword should have disabused us of the notion that these states act independently.

Either way, our strategy seems to be to negotiate until the last possible minute, then bomb if it looks like the Iranians are on the verge of getting the bomb.

The problems here are 1) knowing when they're on the verge is more guesswork than anything, 2) the longer we wait the harder it will be to take out all necessary facilities, and 3) we're not going to get UN approval anyway, and if we think we will by jumping through hoops we're kidding ourselves.

All this said, it's probably worth trying another round of negotiations, but I should think that 2007 should be the year of decision.  

By Anonymous Dan-O, at Sat Aug 26, 12:08:00 PM:

I think Bush should press hard. He should give a speech spelling out Iran's long history of threats and malicious endeavors and outright attacks on the United States and others.

And then we should press the UN hard. Of course they are not serious and will not help.

We need to quickly exhaust the silly diplomatic games (do the UN thing, Euro thing, etc.) and work toward a partial and then eventual full naval blockade of all gasoline shipments to Iran.

I really think a naval blockade is the way to go. Squeeze the Iranian people hard, but not too hard that they rally around the mullah thugs. Our only hope is internal revolution or full scale war.

I prefer the Iranians handle it themselves.  

By Blogger Mycroft, at Sat Aug 26, 03:25:00 PM:

I think, given that this is a terrorist state with whom we are in an undeclared war, we may wish to consider more indirect and offensive measures than the UN. Assuming, of course, that the US possesses such an ability. If not, what has the Bush Administration been doing for the last 5 years?  

By Blogger blert, at Sun Aug 27, 01:50:00 PM:

According to the IAEA Iran has had heavy water production going since 1995.

The original Nazi plan was to use heavy water in a swimming pool bath with natural uranium metal lowered on chains into it. (It would have flashed over and killed the operators.)

The Canadians perfected the Nazi technology and pronounced it the CANDU reactor: CANada Deuterium Uranium. All of her subsequent designs are derived from this essential scheme: no enrichment required... moderate temperatures and pressures.

It has proven embarrassing to the Canadians that history now has exposed them as the number one source of proliferation going away. The Candu scheme is the basis for India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea... programs.

Clinton did succeed in shutting down the North Korean plutonium option. Subsequently intel revealed that the Norks just shifted gears over to Uranium enrichment.

Even low levels of enrichment open up wide avenues of attack when the two approaches are combined.

The key thing to remember is that Tritium is essential to second generation bomb techniques. It can only be produced by bombardment of Deuterium. The transmuted product must be of such concentration that it can be extracted economically. That requires a pretty hot burn: lots of neutrons for lots of time.

Any way you look at it Iran is jumping clean past the first generation weapons that all the press is speculating about. She's going for the H-Bomb or enhanced A-Bombs.

Iran already has atomic bombs... but in only token amounts. She is using them as nuclear IED's in her oil fields and near Bandar Abbas. Perhaps she has one in Southern Lebanon. The notion in every case is to induce 'invaders' to surmount these bombs which can then be detonated by suicide troops at the climax of battle utterly destroying the infidels while inducing the Mahdi to re-appear.

It's not for nothing that Israel and America do not want to present the mullahs with a sweet target.

Hence the bobbing and weaving in Lebanon: never enough exposure or deep enough penetrations to justify the 'final battle' towards a 'final solution.'  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Aug 28, 12:20:00 PM:

I wanted to post a link to a very interesting analysis here.

It's not completely on your point, Tigerhawk, but it basically argues that Iran is this war's version of Uncle Joe Stalin, that we're going to have to cut some deals with in order to win the war against Al Qaeda.

Barnett makes no bones about today's Iran being any nicer than Stalin's Soviet Union. He simply argues that we've empowered Iran via defeating Saddam and the Taliban, in the same way Stalin was greatly enhanced in his power and arrogance by the twin defeats of the Nazis on his western flank and the Japanese to his east.

Thankfully, Iran is no Soviet Union, just as Saddam and the Taliban were not in the league of the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese. Barnett's point remains, though, that a deal is there to be made.

I am not totally comfortable with his analysis, but it's interesting and thought-provoking.

In the end, I am confident the U.S. will win out over Iran, it might just need to be a slower victory in which we encourage the Iranian people with a "Radio Free Iran" along the lines of how we consistently stood with Eastern Europeans against their Communist oppressors.

-- Eric  

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