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Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Spiking The Punch
Recent news stories, such as ["CIA: Iraq could have nuclear weapon in a year"], from CNN, are a bit misleading. Let's take a closer look.
The actual [CIA report] cited by CNN makes it clear that Iraq could have atomic weapons within a year if they obtained sufficient fissile material:
* The acquisition of sufficient fissile material is Iraq's principal hurdle in developing a nuclear weapon.
* Iraq is unlikely to produce indigenously enough weapons-grade material for a deliverable nuclear weapon until the last half of this decade. Baghdad could produce a nuclear weapon within a year if it were able to procure weapons-grade fissile material abroad.

Which is a tad more explict than CNN's version. But what does that mean?

Fissile material is the core of an atomic bomb- the nasty radioactive stuff that is compressed by explosives to create a nuclear chain reaction. Rogue states such as Iraq (or North Korea, Pakistan, Israel, etc) essentially have two choices of fissile material - plutonium (Pu239) or uranium (U235). The route to obtain each, in sufficient purity for use in a bomb, is different.

Plutonium is fairly easy for a nation-state to produce on it's own. Pu239 can be found in the waste generated by a nuclear reactor, and nuclear reactors are fairly easy for third world nations to come by. The waste is treated with nitric acid and the Pu239 is separated from other nasty byproducts. Plutonium does have serious shortcomings though. Not only is a nuclear reactor kind of hard to hide, but plutonium limits the choices you have when designing your bomb. You're forced to use a more complicated and error-prone design. You might recall the [Trinity test in New Mexico in 1945], the world's first atomic bomb blast. That was a test of a plutonium bomb design - but the U235 based bomb was never tested, instead it was already on it's way to the Marianas Islands. The designers were confident enough in the uranium design that they didn't feel the need to test it, since the physics and engineering were so straightforward. The same held true for [South Africa 40 years later when they developed their own nuclear program] (notably while under heavy sanctions) in complete secrecy - they never tested any of their U235 based weapons. It is also worthy of note that there is significantly more evidence right now of an active Iraqi nuclear weapons program than there ever was of one in [South Africa] - until the South Africans [announced they had the weapons and were disarming].

Uranium, though, has it's own problems. Natural uranium ore, as it comes from the earth, is mostly U238, while a very very small percentage of the ore is U235 (the stuff that's useful). The process of purifying thousands of tons of ore to get only a few pounds of U235 is expensive and usually difficult to hide - it requires massive machinery and manpower to accomplish. If you can get enough U235, however, you do not need nearly as much expertise on the design side to come up with a workable weapon on your first try, and you don't need to waste your fissile material with a test.

Iraq, for whatever reason, decided to pursue the uranium route for it's nuclear weapons program a long, long time ago and they have stuck with uranium since. Since the 1980s they have pursued a number of different techniques for purifying (aka enriching) uranium for use in a bomb, rather than switching to plutonium. It's worth of note though that the design the Iraqis chose for the bomb itself could be built with Pu239 instead of U235 if they decided to switch at some time.

Now let's look at that CIA report again.

Baghdad could produce a nuclear weapon within a year if it were able to procure weapons-grade fissile material abroad.

Iraq's efforts to procure tens of thousands of proscribed high-strength aluminum tubes are of significant concern. All intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons and that these tubes could be used in a centrifuge enrichment program. Most intelligence specialists assess this to be the intended use, but some believe that these tubes are probably intended for conventional weapons programs

seem to be conflicting statements, don't they? Why would Iraq be buying parts for a uranium enrichment program if they were looking abroad for fissile material?

It's likely that Iraqi buyers are looking for not 95% enriched U235, but are going to settle for what they can get. If, for instance, Iraq obtained 1000kg of 50% enriched U235, it would seem useless for a bomb program at first, but if Iraq has it's enrichment program operating, adding that 50% U235 to their enrichment process would get them to a bomb in less than half the time (and would yield more bombs than if they hadn't. The math is tricky, trust me on this). This is like spiking the punch- by adding a little bit of even partially enriched uranium to their enrichment cycle, they increase the efficiency of the process exponentially.

It's probably a surprise, but partially enriched uranium is literally sitting around waiting to be picked up. [Russian naval reactors], such as those used on their submarines and icebreakers, use 20-45% enriched uranium for most of their fuel, with some even using 85% U235 (which, in fact, is good enough for a bomb). Since the decline of the Russian submarine fleet in the 1990s, both [fully fuelled and decomissioned submarines] have been left rusting at their piers in Russian ports. These ports are hardly guarded at all, with only tiny caretaker staff if any at all, getting far less attention than the plight of Russia's stored nuclear weapons and their components. That could be one easy source of enriched U235 for an Iraqi bomb.

Another source could very well be someone else's nuclear program. In August the US miltiary and intelligence community, working with Russia, Serbia, and other EU nations, staged a ["snatch" operation at a nuclear facility near Belgrade]. Enough U235 had been stored there for a number of nuclear weapons to be produced, and it's surprising that during the more than a decade of heavy factional fighting in the area that the U235 had not been sold already. Surrounding the corpse of the Soviet Union and other regimes such as South Africa and Argentina are these hidden caches, leftovers of nuclear programs both open and covert. If Iraq were to get material from as place such as the reactor near Belgrade, he would be - as stated in the CIA report - about 6 months, at worst, from a deployable atomic bomb. So right now he's a single purchase and a few months of engineering away.

Food for thought.

11/19/2002 12:44:00 AM ] [  0 comments  ]
A good quick laugh