Exclusive: Iran: Plutonium or Uranium? Does it matter? (Part One of Three)
by DR. ROBIN MCFEE
May 14, 2009
“The chilling reality is that nuclear materials and technologies are more accessible now than at any other time in history.” Former Director – U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, John Deutch
DCI Deutch was absolutely correct at the time he offered that caution, and things have only worsened over the last several years. The experts said North Korea couldn’t get a nuclear weapon. They now have several – much to the surprise of those experts and the folks who relied upon them. Then they said no one in the Middle East had nuclear weapons or aspirations for them except Israel. Enter Syria – they were in the process of developing a facility capable of producing weapons grade plutonium. Israel solved that problem, laying it to waste in a pile of rubble. Recently, small amounts of highly enriched uranium were found in Egypt. They have no idea how it got there. Hmm! Now we have perhaps the greatest threat to both the world and the Middle East – Iran. Once again the experts state it does not have the capacity to yet make, let alone possess, a weapon or weapons grade nuclear materials. Really? Any time an expert says something cannot be done, expect that it has been accomplished and start planning for all exigencies and the fall out – if you’ll excuse the pun.
Is Iran a threat? What do you call a nation that publicly denounces the West, thinks Israel should cease to exist, exports expertise and weapons to Hezbollah with tickets to Lebanon and Egypt in the hope of weakening Israel and destabilizing more moderate Middle East nations, supports Jihadist terrorism, aligns itself with North Korea, Venezuela, and Russia in order to obtain advanced weapons technologies, cash, safe havens and strategic alliances? Their nuclear aspirations in context; Iran has been labeled the most active state sponsor of terrorism. Iran has been involved in the planning and financial support (so how are those sanctions working on limiting Tehran’s discretionary income to spread around?) of terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia. According to a government report, Iran’s Qods Force – a special branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard – is Iran’s effecter arm that provides the weapons, training, funding and expertise to Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi insurgents, possibly Taliban, PIJ and other radical groups.
Hezbollah is one of Iran’s proxies as Iran is Russia’s. And Hezbollah is becoming a far more effective global franchise than previously appreciated; and may eclipse al Qaeda as a threat to the West. Hezbollah with “offices” (cells) in South America (think Venezuela) much of Europe and most certainly in North America, the West has reason to be concerned about this entities getting nuclear materials if Iran has quantities of weapons grade, or a global backlash from an attack its facilities. So we walk the razors edge. Do we want and can we allow such a regime to possess nuclear weapons and the ability to deploy them? Will Iran use the weapons once they have them? Will Iran have a back of the truck sale and divert materials? Or, is it enough to just use possession as a chip to get into the big game and become one of the most influential Islamic countries? So far, Ahmadinejad is using that chip very adroitly.
The Nuclear Club
To date, based upon best estimates, the following are members of this elite and growing club:
Glow in the Dark – Lodge 101 includes the U.S., Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea, and likely next in line to receive the secret handshake is Iran.
So do we concede yet another dangerous regime joining the nuclear club, regroup and raise the mantra “never again?” Have we learned anything from this saga? Do we yet see the inadequate preventive and control measures we rest our security upon in trying to limit the nuclear club? Will there be other nuclear wannabes? (YES) Do we have a short list? We should! Think of Syria for starters, but some folks in Africa might want to revisit their options and opportunities, too. The chief of IAEA warned that Syria was “obstructing efforts to clarify U.S. intelligence indications that it almost built a covert nuclear reactor geared to yielding plutonium for atom bombs before it was destroyed in 2007.” Turkey is unlikely to remain on the sidelines either. Already reinvigorating their relationship with Russia is a good first step.
Now what to do about it? Alas there are few magic antidotes for this brand of global danger. Complex issues often rely upon complex, even painful solutions.
Russia may be able to exert some delaying influence or a suggestion to lay low for a while. But Russia has its own agenda. Winning over Obama, another astute move by the cunning chess master Putin, can easily be accomplished by yielding very little. So Russia may weigh in. How valuable in the long term, like any action sanctioned from Moscow, has to be taken with a great deal of suspicion.
Two of the biggest questions the West has to answer – first, is Iran trustworthy? This is not a trick question. All options emanate from the answer. Everyone, especially in the preparedness arena, with the exception of the village idiot, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and of course Capitol Hill, knows the answer…ABSOLUTELY NOT! Ahmadinejad isn’t the only “leader” there; we also know the Iranian clerics as well as Ahmadinejad each have influence in the country. They too want nuclear security. The elephant in the room that underlies future strategies….will Iran use nukes offensively or allow diversion of materials to terror cells?
Remember….Threat = Capability x Intent. The x factor is “intent.”
Assuming we all agree Iran isn’t dealing straight from the deck, the next question is, is it possible to force Iran into trustworthiness? That implies moving Tehran away from its defined self interests. Easier said than done!
Iran has learned a great deal from its Russian protectors. Iran weapons programs, for most of the last 10 to 20 years or so, has been reminiscent of Brigadoon – only now emerging from the mists do we start to get the full glimpse of the hidden world of their nuclear program. Almost since the program’s inception, Iran has continued to underreport, hide or flat out lie about their various and sundry nuclear activities. Repeatedly, the IAEA has had to report they misjudged, were caught unaware, were denied access to or could not verify much of the black box of Iran’s nuclear program. As an aside, Iran’s biological program is shrouded in an even darker black box, albeit on a much smaller scale than their nuclear efforts. But we’ll visit global biological weapons at another time.
Recall just a few months ago the IAEA – the nuclear inspectors who go globetrotting to ferret out potential nuclear mishaps and malfeasance, were caught totally off guard when they discovered Iran had significantly more centrifuges and enriched uranium than the folks in Tehran originally admitted. Iran has enough uranium to create a nuclear device. The IAEA said it had discovered an additional 460 pounds of low-enriched uranium (LEU), a third more than Iran had previously disclosed. Bringing the total in range for a weapon once the LEU was further enriched. The agency made the find during its annual physical inventory of nuclear materials at Iran’s sprawling desert enrichment plant at Natanz – facility Iran lied about and tried to disguise in the early years.
“It’s worse than we thought,” Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said in an interview. “It’s alarming that the actual production was underreported by a third.” Alarming? Yes. Shocking? Are you kidding?
Apparently our friends in Tehran underreported the quantities of uranium that they had. And our government, and THE international watch dog agency, as well as those “experts,” were surprised because?
Nevertheless, it is worth repeating the quantity of low enriched uranium (LEU) is enough, when further enriched to highly enriched uranium (HEU), to produce a nuclear weapon, according to virtually every credible threat analysis. The sad reality is, the safety of the world rests upon nations being forthcoming about their weapons capability to a “watchdog” agency that is underfunded, undermanned, sometimes politicized, often ready to accept at face value what is being told, and frequently lacks the vision, legal authority or enforcement capabilities to adequately meet the task before them. If annual inspections, which require permission and advance warning, especially of a large country with several enrichment facilities is supposed to make the world safe, we’re all in trouble. Sleep tight.
Iran’s Nuclear Misdirection
“All warfare is based on deception” – Sun Tzu.
It has long bothered me, as well as some of my colleagues, that geoglobally most of the players are almost uniquely focused on Iran’s uranium capabilities, to the near exclusion of their plutonium potential. Yet the facility at Arak or the issue of plutonium are either ignored or dismissed. Underestimating an adversary is dangerous.
Iran and Ahmadinejad may be a lot of things, mostly not complementary, but stupid isn’t one of them. Does it make sense that Iran would focus solely on uranium as the material for nuclear weapons when plutonium has been the ticket to the nuclear club for India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea? Israel, for goodness sake, has some of the smartest scientific minds in the world; and what path did this fledgling nation take in the 1950s towards nuclear weapons? Plutonium from their Dimona reactor in the Negev. North Korea – not the brightest light on the tree, but certainly aided by experienced nuclear nations – went the plutonium route. Syria was embarking upon a nuclear program – again the plutonium path. So why would Iran would solely focus on the expensive and time consuming process of P1 and P2 centrifuge development to enrich uranium as their sole source? On first blush it would seem to make sense. Iran has most likely covered every base in the nuclear fuel cycle necessary to produce a thermonuclear device. From possessing small amounts of natural uranium to developing enrichment plants, and centrifuge capability – if Iran doesn’t have enough HEU for a weapon, it will not be much longer until it does.
In 2006 Western intelligence services got a quick wakeup call when they learned Iran and North Korea were discussing plutonium and energy deals. North Korea has been able to extract plutonium. Clearly such sales are difficult to stop as evidence by our high profile inabilities to reign in Pyongyang. Recall in 2004, North Korea sold over a ton of uranium to Libya. In 2005 the U.S. learned North Koreas plutonium stockpile was ~50 kg. More than enough for several weapons if in fact it is high purity Pu239.According to several sources, Iran embarked upon a plutonium program; given both Iran and North Korea play well together and exchange military and nuclear expertise, this should not be a shocking revelation. If and it is an IF, North Korea had an excess inventory sale to Tehran, it would go far to fast track Iran’s capabilities.
So did Iran buck the trend that other nations followed to join the elite nuclear club? What do you think?
Perhaps that is Ahmadinejad’s best magician’s misdirection of all!
In 2005, Tehran admitted to the IAEA/UN that they in fact processed a “small” amount of plutonium in 1995 and again in 1998. The IAEA and other watchdogs admitted Iran’s repeated misrepresentation of their nuclear efforts “raises the question whether Iran is coming clean about its nuclear activities. “ You think? In 2009 IAEA chief El Baradei stated that Tehran was stonewalling attempts to defuse mistrust by refusing to suspend uranium enrichment, not allowing UN inspections at installations Iran claims are military but developing research or conventional weapons (IAEA does not have the authority), or preventing visits to a heavy water reactor under construction. Although IAEA has repeatedly stated they don’t have evidence that Iran is not in the nuclear game for purely peaceful reasons, the reality is that IAEA isn’t sure that Iran is up to. And they will admit they have very limited legal authority to pierce the veil.
There’s an old saying – you think it, know it or can prove it. Much of the world if honesty prevails will admit in terms of Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations – we’re almost at the “prove it” stage.
What can we do about it? Should we do anything about it? The actions of the new administration in the White House seem to demonstrate a willingness to concede Iran is or will go nuclear in the hope the folks in Tehran will assist us with Afghanistan, Pakistan or a new recipe for baklava. Moreover POTUS 44 et al think somehow promoting Iran to a quasi most favored nation status will allow the West to reign in Tehran’s nuclear appetites. Obama has failed to inspire European enthusiasm for the next push in Afghanistan. He needs a win. Iran can be friend or foe in that conflict. Neverthe ess, what part of “we’re spending billions for advanced conventional weapons, payload launch capacity, missile defense and nuclear technology and have done so for over 25 years, mostly right under the West’s collective noses” – doesn’t convey what Iran is all about?
All nations act in their best interests. Few have friends; most have alliances, shared objectives or shared enemies. Sun Tzu once counseled the critical importance of knowing your enemy better than yourself. How is the U.S. doing on that strategy geoglobally? FSM readers already know the scorecard.
Consider the fact that nations can say “no” to IAEA when inspectors want to come in and verify the reports or what they are told. Is that any way to run an inspection program designed to limit nuclear proliferation, diversion or flat out weapons production? No it is not. Yet that is our reality. Perhaps one of the next steps the West must take is to rebuild the IAEA and change the rules of engagement. Surprise visits should not be announced (what a concept). The IAEA needs help, fast.
It is time to take a very close and HARD look at the worldwide nuclear landscape and make some very difficult decisions before it is too late. That is, unless you are comfortable with rogue nations having nuclear weapons, and/or have confidence in the collective abilities of both the current leadership in the U.S. and the United Nations (IAES) to curtail, control or disable the threat. Or you trust Russia, China, Iran, North Korea…
What follows will be a brief overview of reactor technology, which is essential in order to have a decent conversation about the threat we face. This will be followed by an overview of Iran’s current nuclear resources and infrastructure, a primer on the various types of nuclear threats we face, the Russia – Israel – U.S. factor, and thoughts on where do we go from here.
Nuclear Weapons & Reactor Technology – a brief overview
The theory behind nuclear weapons is simple – unleash the enormous binding energy contained in the atomic nuclei of certain elements – principally Uranium 235 and Plutonium 239. The energy released, as evidence by Nagasaki and Hiroshima, is rapid and violent. (Forgive me if I omit some of the physics in the interest of saving you from premature somnolence). The resulting destructive force is often quantified in terms of the estimated amount of TNT required to obtain the same effect; usually in kilotonnes (kt) or megatonnes (MT). One kt is the equivalent of a thousand tonnes of TNT. Consider the technology has scaled from requiring a large bomber (Enola Gay) and a large bomb in the 1940s to something that will fit in a suitcase – with this much power in the 1990s!
You often hear the term “critical mass,” which generally refers to the amount of U235 or Pu 239 that can self sustain a chain reaction once the first fission or split occurs – that is usually accomplished by high explosives. The critical mass required is dependent upon the design of the weapon used. There are two tried and true designs of basic nuclear or atomic weapons since the 1940s, albeit several others, including “hydrogen” weapon technology have emerged but we will leave that for another time. These include the implosion and the gun assembly design.
In the implosion technique you surround the nuclear material (plutonium or uranium) with high explosives; the detonation is directed inwards, compressing the material. The theory is that if you can increase the density of the initial event, you can use less material to start with. “Fat Man” the atomic bomb that levelled Nagasaki used 6.2 kg of plutonium with a yield of slightly more than 20 kt according to a Department of Energy assessment.
The gun-assembly design (of TV’s The Unit episode last Sunday) is a simpler design, and requires highly enriched U235.The theory behind this design is that instead of one critical mass, you place two subcritical masses that initially are separated, rapidly together through explosives; one mass – the projectile slams into the target mass. This forms a single critical mass driven into supercriticality (think kaboom). The atomic weapon used to destroy Hiroshima utilized the gun-assembly design and ~64 kg of HEU (? pure U235); it is considered the easiest of all nuclear devices to produce.
The Hiroshima bomb – a weapon based upon fission – utilized U235 as the nuclear material to sustain the explosive chain reaction. A weapon requires high purity material. Uranium is a naturally found element made up of isotopes – U 235, U 238, U239. U238 makes up over 99% of naturally occurring uranium; it is unsuited for a weapon. U235 is the isotope necessary for a weapon. The process of increasing the amount of U235 relative to U238 is referred to as “uranium enrichment.”
Because U235 is lighter than the other isotopes of uranium, using a centrifuge can separate out, concentrate if you will, the U235; early rounds of this technique produce low enriched uranium (LEU), i.e. material that has a low % of U235. By continuously centrifuging LEU, you can purify it to highly enriched uranium (HEU), i.e. very high % of U235. The amount in kilograms necessary to produce a nuclear weapon is predicated upon the design of the device. It is well accepted there have been designs circulating on the black market for years. Generally speaking between ~17 and 22 kg would do be sufficient to make one weapon. To date Iran is estimated to have enough LEU to produce sufficient HEU. You don’t need Robert Oppenheimer to make one! This isn’t the Manhattan Project; less iconic scientists can create a weapon with the right resources and materials.
Plutonium is an element created as a by product of uranium powered reactors. It must be extracted from irradiated reactor fuel. Much like the Dimona reactor in Israel, with some differences, North Korea’s graphite moderated reactor is likely a plutonium source.
Obtaining plutonium is possible through a variety of reactor designs and processes. Most reactors produce plutonium, including Iran’s Bushehr. However it is impure; the isotope Pu239 that is necessary for a weapon and to obtain high percentages of that is more likely from a heavy water moderated reactor – like that proposed in Arak, Iran.
Iran’s Nuclear Resources and Infrastructure
According to the WORLD AT RISK Report of the Bipartisan Commission on the Prevention
of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism:
“for almost a decade, the United States has been concerned that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program through clandestine activities as well as under the guise of peaceful enrichment for civilian nuclear power. In 2002, a London-based Iranian opposition group—the National Council of Resistance of Iran—added to such concerns by disclosing details about a secret heavy-water production plant at Arak and an underground enrichment facility at Natanz. Later that year, the United States denounced Iranian violations of the NPT and IAEA Safeguards agreement, accusing Iran of across-the-board pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Three years later, the IAEA Board ofGovernors expressed an “absence of confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.” In early 2006, the board voted to refer Iran as a possible NPT violator to the UN Security Council; in December 2006, the UN Security Council ordered Iran to suspend its enrichment effort and adopted the first of three resolutions imposing sanctions to punish Iran for continued defiance of the Security Council order.”
Iran has at least two uranium mines – Saghand and Gachin. Together they produced an estimated 21 metric tons of uranium ore; sufficient in the right processing context to produce perhaps four nuclear weapons.
Natanz is a large and growing uranium centrifuge complex. It exists for U235 enrichment. Referred to as P-2, they are more advanced centrifuges than the current P-1 centrifuges being utilized. Recall Iran plans to have 50,000 centrifuges on line.
One has to wonder to what purpose when Russia already has a reactor fuel deal in play.
Tehran Research Reactor – using uranium dioxide prepared at the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center, they reprocessed materials for the separation of plutonium.
It has been alleged that Iran has an advanced laser enrichment program. While the end-product of their separation technologies are still somewhat shrouded, and likely been modest, they also include a small amount of plutonium. A little here, a little there, pretty soon you have something of value! Their laser enrichment experiments have also produced highly enriched uranium.
This is a pilot laser enrichment plant established in 2000. Using a 50 kg undeclared (to IAEA) shipment from Russia, this facility was able to produce a quantity of LEU. Iran asserts this facility is now dismantled. In 2003 IAEA reported on Iran’s failing to provide design specifications on their laser enrichment laboratory.
Surprise, another undisclosed storage facility associated with laser enrichment. Guess where the equipment from LashKar Ab’ad went?
Isfahan hosts a uranium hexafluoride conversion plant, required for the next step in centrifuge enrichment at Netanz.
On April 9, 2009 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated a new nuclear facility that will produce pellets of uranium oxide ore or UO2 (reactor fuel) for the heavy-water and likely plutonium production reactor under construction in Arak.This effectively demonstrates Iran has a complete nuclear fuel cycle.
Part Two will continue with the discussion of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Dr. Robin McFee is a physician and medical toxicologist. An expert in WMD preparedness, she is a consultant to government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is a member of the Global Terrorism, Political Instability and International Crime Council of ASIS International. She has authored numerous articles on terrorism, health care and preparedness, and coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press.