April 11, 2006

Clams Got Legs! Well... Maybe Not

Hatched by Dafydd

This is one of the few times I cannot legitimately add this post to the category "Media Madness," because on this occasion, the antique media has actually done a pretty creditable job.

The first point to note is that the glib simplification "Iran's gone nuclear!" misses a critical mass of distinctions. What Iran announced today is that they have enriched Uranium Hexafluoride gas (Hex) to about 3.5%.

Yet it is a setback for President Bush, who declared on Monday that one of his goals was to make sure that Iran never obtained the knowledge of how to enrich uranium, even at research-scale levels. They appear to have already passed that point. And if the Iranians have achieved what they said, they clearly would eventually be able to expand the process on an industrial scale and, if they were determined to do so, enrich the uranium to levels that could produce an atomic weapon.

But so far the quanitities that the country has produced appear to be miniscule, and the enrichment level they announced today — 3.5 percent — is far short of what would be required for a weapon.

As we discussed before, there are two kinds of Uranium, only one of which -- 235U -- is really useful in a bomb (because it's less stable). To make a useful bomb (or nuclear power plant), you have to increase the percent of 235U in the sample from its natural level of 0.72% to some higher percentage. Typically, a reactor uses nuclear fuel enriched to 3% - 5%, and a modern-day nuclear weapon uses fuel enriched to 85% - 90%. It is possible, however, to make a "quick and dirty" nuclear bomb that will explode with only slightly more than 20% enrichment -- the threshold for Highly Enriched Uranium.

(Between 2% and 20% is considerered Low Enriched; 0.9% to 2% is Slightly Enriched; and below 0.9% is Natural Uranium.)

The other component of Uranium is 238U; the little, superscripted number to the left refers to the isotope's atomic weight. Since 238U is slightly heavier than 235U, they are often separated by putting the Hex into a cylinder and spinning it really fast; some of the heavier 238U will separate from the lighter isotope. The device that does this is called a gas centrifuge... and the more you have, the faster you can enrich Uranium.

Typically, a country will use many gas centrifuges, and will run the enriched gas through the separation cycle again and again, leading to higher and higher levels of enrichment. This is called a "cascade," at which Iran has been beavering away for at least the last seven years, and probably since shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

If Iran is telling the truth about their level of enrichment, what it has gotten now is a very small amount of Uranium enriched to reactor level... but far below bomb level. That is, however, a big "if." Since Iran has repeatedly lied throughout this crisis -- and since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad knows very well that admitting to enrichment any greater than 3% - 3.5% would force the entire world to admit that Iran was headed for nuclear weapons -- he would likely say "3.5%" whether it was really 3.5% or really 7.5%.

So Iran may be a lot closer to bomb-grade Uranium than they're willing to admit.

Even so, it seems highly doubtful they could possibly be anywhere near even the 20% enrichment necessary for a crappy nuke, let alone the 85% needed for a more effective, modern bomb. Still, this announcement makes it very clear there's no stopping them... at least not diplomatically. We had better be prepared for military action -- and sooner rather than later:

Mr. Ahmadinejad also said that Iran was treading a path for the production of industrial fuel and that the country's nuclear activities have been "under complete, unprecedented" supervision by the I.A.E.A.

"Today we are interested to operate under I.A.E.A. supervision what has been achieved. And what is going to be achieved in the future is within the framework of the rights of the nation."

Translating from Ahmadinejad-ese, I think he is asserting that Iran has the right to do whatever it wants within its own borders. Which might be a reasonable argument -- if this were a question of "rights" (of nations or otherwise). But we're less concerned about what "rights" Iran may have than we are with our own national security; one way or another, President Bush will not allow Iran to "go nuclear" (in the nuclear-bomb sense) on his watch:

President Bush on Monday repeated his determination to block Iran from gaining the kind of technical expertise from small-scale enrichment that could become the basis for a larger program capable of producing weapons. "We do not want the Iranians to have a nuclear weapon, the capacity to make a nuclear weapon, or the knowledge as to how to make a nuclear weapon," he said.

We're not the only ones worrying about this, of course. But the international bodies that could actually do something effective about the problem (short of a military strike) -- if they had the will -- are yet again trapped by their own internal tug-of-angst, just as they were anent Iraq....

On Wednesday night, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, is scheduled to arrive in Tehran to make another appeal for the country to halt its enrichment program and avoid a confrontation with the West. Iranian officials said that Mr. ElBaradei would face a changed situation, and American officials say they suspect that Iran's strategy is to portray its effort as a fait accompli that cannot be reversed.

Here is the situation on a nutshell, as Big Lizards sees it:

  1. Iran admits they have a working gas-centrifuge cascade that can enrich Uranium;
  2. However, they only admit to the 164 centrifuges at their Natanz Research Facility (aboveground);

The latest on this point came from former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani:

Earlier in the day, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who is the head of an important national security council, told the Kuwait News Agency that Iran's nuclear scientists had enriched uranium using a cascade of 164 centrifuges.

An official at the I.A.E.A., who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the announcements appeared to refer to an older cascade at the nuclear center at Natanz. That cascade would be able to enrich uranium by the small amount needed for use as fuel in a nuclear reactor, but producing weapons-grade uranium would require a far larger installation, he said.

Rafsanjani, however, is not the final word; we have reason to believe the Iranians are lying about this, too.

  1. The United States and the United Kingdom, contrariwise, believe that the Iranians are working on a much larger, belowground facility at Natanz, one that houses as many as 4,000 gas centrifuges.

This disturbing claim comes via to the left-wing Guardian newspaper of Great Britain (what used to be the Manchester Guardian):

Meanwhile, it was claimed today that Iran had secretly manufactured around 4,000 centrifuges capable of weapons grade uranium enrichment - 25 times the quantity it has admitted to the UN.

If true, this completely changes all the calculations about how fast Iran could actually spin-up their Hex to actual weapons-grade Uranium.

  1. The Iranians admit to enriching only up to reactor-grade, 3.5%;
  2. But since negotiations began in earnest in 1998, the Iranians have consistently lied, been caught, admitted the lie, and then lied again -- often about the very subject they just got caught lying about last time. We cannot trust any of their claims;
  3. However, we probably have a reasonably good idea ourselves (or through intel from Israel, which has a lot more spies in Iran than they ever had in Iraq) of how much enrichment Iran has actually achieved;

Since John Bolton, our representative to the United Nations, is not literally running around with his hair on fire, which he would be if Iran had achieved anything close to 20% -- well, all right... metaphorically on fire -- I think it safe to conclude that it's somewhere between 3.5% and, say, 7% - 8%. Probably on the lower side of that divide (maybe 5%?)

Still, there is absolutely no doubt about it: it's toll the tocsin time. I sure as heck hope the reports are accurate that we have "advanced plans" for attacking Iran... because at this pace, we're gonna need 'em within months, not years.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, April 11, 2006, at the time of 7:03 PM

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Tracked on April 21, 2006 6:15 PM


The following hissed in response by: jd watson

Of course, a 20% enhanced weapon requires much more uranium to achieve critical mass. On the History Channel special on the Einstein letter to FDR, interviews of German nuclear scientists after the war found that they were surprised by the American weapons because they thought such a weapon would require tons of enriched uranium.

If I were an Iranian, I would only enrich to 3.5-5% and run it through a fast breeder reactor to produce plutonium. This can be separated chemically instead of mechanically, giving 100% enrichment and a much smaller critical mass (i.e., a missile warhead weapon or a suitcase nuke).

The above hissed in response by: jd watson [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 11, 2006 8:38 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

JD Watson:

If I were an Iranian, I would only enrich to 3.5-5% and run it through a fast breeder reactor....

Well, unless the Iranians have really done a bravura job at keeping it a secret, I don't think they have one of those!


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 11, 2006 8:42 PM

The following hissed in response by: Bill Faith

Ah, but Dafydd. Since they only intend to use their nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, surely they must have power generating stations under construction that we haven't noticed yet, right?

The above hissed in response by: Bill Faith [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 11, 2006 8:58 PM

The following hissed in response by: amirNI

Are you saying that Iran is lying about 3.5% level and the actual enrichment level is more than that?

I just heard David Albright on CNN saying that Iran exaggerates the achievements and Iran is far away from producing nuclear fuel (even farther from producing a bomb).

Besides, according to IAEA's website, Natanz is a declared facility and is under Surveillance of IAEA. Now, you are saying that Iran is enriching Uranium in an underground -and I am assuming that you mean "undeclared"- facility in Natanz?

You also mentioned that "Iranian [officials!!] have consistently lied, been caught, admitted the lie, and then lied again". Tell me something about the things they lied about: Were they lawful or unlawful? According to IAEA's latest report, there is no proof that Iran has moved towards N-weapons.

(You may say "lying" itself is unlawful. This is my view: If Iranian officials hadn't lied about what they were doing, they wouldn't have had the technology they have now.)

The above hissed in response by: amirNI [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 11, 2006 11:06 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


Besides, according to IAEA's website, Natanz is a declared facility and is under Surveillance of IAEA.

Whew, that's a load off my mind! <G>


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 12, 2006 12:12 AM

The following hissed in response by: Big D

The Iranians are playing the same game that North Korea and Irag played. Posturing, puffing, and lying. Kim Jong Ill won that bet, Saddam lost. Iran is now claiming weapons and abilities they probably don't have so we won't attack, but their very claims make us inclined to attack.

Does anyone else get the sense of the MSM...egging on the Bush Administration? They report all this crap from Iran as breathless speculation, "out" information about Bush planning attacks. What is their agenda here? What does this say about what happened in Iraq? What meme is being played out?

The above hissed in response by: Big D [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 12, 2006 9:25 AM

The following hissed in response by: patrick neid

the most disturbing feature of this confrontation is the iranian president's religious fanaticism. we are in deep sh*t on this one. here's a guy that has built a mosque on top of a well, where the 12th iman resides. i think he has also laid the equivalent of a red carpet from the mosque to the presidential palace. why? his little band of merrymen believe that the guy in the well will only come out when armageddon starts. how it starts doesn't matter--just so long as it starts. once he is out the caliphate will resume.
if the description above is accurate, it won't matter what we do. whatever approach we take will always lead to the same place. war with iran. why? because that's what they want.

we are in the twilight zone...........

ie. last night on the news, specialists all mentioned that they only had 164 centrifuges. to get weapons grade they would have to have 1500 running for year so its no big deal at this time. the president hears that and today announces they will have 54,000 up and running next year.
we are circling the drain............

from Wikipedia......

Hojjatieh is a semi-clandestine Iranian organization which is radically anti-Bahá'í and anti-Sunni. The group flourished during the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah and installed an Islamic government in his place. However it was banned in 1983 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution.
They believe that chaos must be created to hasten the return of the Mahdi, the 12th Shi'ite Imam. Only then, they argue, can a genuine Islamic republic be established.
The current president of Iran Mahmud Ahmadinejad is rumored to be an advocate of this group. Since the president took office in August 2005 almost all of his major speeches contain some reference to the return of the 12th Imam. A September address to the U.N. General Assembly contained long passages on the Mahdi which confused Western diplomats and irked those from Sunni Muslim countries who believe in a different line of succession from Mohammed.

The above hissed in response by: patrick neid [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 12, 2006 12:53 PM

The following hissed in response by: hunter

Iranians are being sold a bill of goods. If they have only achieved the level they admit to, what they have is an intermediate step. My bet is the islamofscist regime is promoting this to placate their own people as to why nukes are getting so much money while Iranians are still ahving to import refined oil products and are facing financial and energy problems.
That said, my bet is they have other programs that are much farther along, and that they likely have a bomb already, even if one bought in the black market.

The above hissed in response by: hunter [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 13, 2006 6:44 AM

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