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Finding the Devil in the Details

January 31, 2014
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Building the Bomb


The Iranian nuclear program is a complex system with many phases to it, and even multiple paths to functioning nuclear weapons. Building a nuclear bomb is not easy. A mad dash to do so is very likely to sharpen world attention and invite an immediate war. That would create a huge obstacle to a rogue nation that hasn’t completely developed its nuclear weaponry. Israel, the United States and even Saudi Arabia have lots of incentive to stop Iran from acquiring the bomb. So Iran has to move secretly and slowly to set up the system first before reaching a long-term goal of an effective nuclear bomb. The process goes something like this:

Step One: Starting the Enrichment Process

Long before nuclear warheads can be loaded onto missiles, Iran has to develop the equipment needed for the longest step in the process: creating nuclear fuel. The process starts with raw uranium. In its natural form, uranium is not worth much. Less than one percent of natural uranium is capable of really setting off ongoing nuclear reactions. According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the amount of “fissionable” material is raised from one percent to three-to-five percent for nuclear power plants. This process is known as uranium enrichment, and it begins by converting the uranium into a gaseous form.

For Iran, the next step requires a sizable array of centrifuges—large cylinder machines that spin quickly and separate the uranium components out so the amount of fissionable material is increased. The fissionable uranium is slowly separated by the spinning of the centrifuges because it’s lighter than the other type. Think of it as separating cream from milk or the process of separating grease from meat juices—over time, the “good” uranium “rises to the top” and is set aside and refined into a type that is usable for nuclear reactions.

Step Two: Enhancing the Enriched Uranium

There are different levels of enrichment that can be used for different nuclear projects. Low-enriched uranium (LEU) is the three-to-five percent level that is used for nuclear power. The bulk of Iran’s stockpile is made up of this level, and it is this level that the world seems prepared to allow Iran to maintain within limits. The next major step is high-enriched uranium (HEU) that is close to 20%, which is used for nuclear medical research. While Iran claims it needs some uranium enriched to 20% for its research reactor, critics have argued that Iran was in the process of making far more than needed for peaceful purposes. It is this (HEU) uranium that was most targeted for reduction in the deal made with world powers in November 2013. The most dangerous form of nuclear fuel is weapons-grade uranium (WGU). Ideally, this is enriched to 90% fissionable material. As of the writing of this article, Iran is not believed to have developed any uranium to this level.

According to the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), the process of developing weapons-grade uranium can be done in the three-steps defined above—moving from low to high to weapons grade uranium—or in a two- or four-step approach. Iran has quite a bit of the low-enriched uranium—more than enough to build multiple bombs. It just needs to further enrich its LEU to weapons-grade uranium. But, in the meantime, there are other areas that have to be developed to prepare for the weapons-grade uranium.

Step Three: Developing the Nuclear Warhead

A nuclear warhead is not just dynamite and enriched uranium. The chain reaction of explosions has to be designed precisely so that the bomb achieves maximum impact. This process is something Iran is believed to have begun, and it’s something that has the United Nations nuclear watchdog—the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—concerned. So far, Iran has not allowed the IAEA all the access it seeks in order to verify that Iran hasn’t worked on the explosive testing needed for a nuclear warhead. In other words, it looks highly suspicious that Iran has already started the process of “making the blueprint” for building a nuclear-armed missile.

The biggest downside to the deal reached between Iran and the world powers last November is that it freezes additional sanctions and war threats against Iran for six months, decreasing the pressure for them to comply. Iran could use that time to develop the technology needed for a nuclear weapon. We don’t know exactly how far Iran has gotten in the “development” stage.

Step Four: Putting It Together


The final phase would likely require Iran to be quite public about its intentions. Unless Iran has a secret nuclear fuel enrichment facility, they would need to shift the process in their public facilities from making low-enriched uranium (LEU) to making weapons grade (WGU). That process would probably alert the nuclear inspectors in Iran and could lead to war. In other words, Iran has to be prepared in every respect before making that move. It will take some time to build the bomb, and it will likely be a noticeable move that will start a war if Iran takes too long. But it is possible to sneak one’s way to the bomb, and that’s precisely why the deal between Iran and world powers has been viewed with such skepticism. In fact, it’s not only possible to trick the world while building nukes, it’s actually been done before.

Secrecy and Smokescreens

Piotr Tomicki/shutterstock.com

It took North Korea over a decade, but they finally did it—they tricked the world powers. Multiple dramatic deals were fashioned between world powers and North Korea, but rather than become a peaceful country with nuclear energy, they became one of the select few nations to ever test a nuclear weapon. And they did it more than once. The keys to that process were secrecy and smokescreens. As part of their deals with the world, the North Koreans dismantled parts of their plutonium reactor that helped build their nuclear fuel, according to ISIS. However, ISIS also noted that North Korea had already developed key parts of their nuclear fuel before taking that dramatic step. In fact, according to ISIS, some of that nuclear fuel process had already begun years before the first deal with the world was made. Even after the first deal was signed, more nuclear fuel production was done. And so North Korea’s first nuclear test was actually more than a decade after the first nuclear deal. That’s patience.

Despite three nuclear tests—two of which occurred after their second attention-getting deal with the world that involved the actual dismantling of part of their machinery—North Korea isn’t ready to nuke the US—yet. The New York Times noted that North Korea’s grandest nuclear test was less powerful than the bomb the US used on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. In other words, North Korea has the fuel for multiple weapons, but they haven’t perfected the weaponization process. ISIS has noted that one step North Korea may still need to improve is the building of the warhead—making it small and powerful enough to fit on a missile that can reach the US. North Korea also has to perfect its long-range missile program (which they have been working on for years).

And that’s precisely why Iran’s nuclear deal is so scary. Like the arrangements with North Korea, Iran’s deal does limit their work on nuclear fuel and weapons. But it also buys them time—through reduced sanctions and the lack of war threats. And that time can be used to do the “easier” parts of nuclear weapons development—designing the bomb and building the missiles.

Prophet of Doom?

Marek Pawluczuk/shutterstock.com

The last phase—the actual bomb-making process for nuclear weapons—is surprisingly easy to hide. And that’s why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has focused so much attention on Iran’s fuel-making process. In his 2012 speech to the United Nations, Netanyahu clarified precisely what should be the world’s worst nightmare: Iran can create the bomb. As previously noted in this article, Netanyahu pointed out that the nuclear fuel enrichment process is difficult and requires facilities that are “visible” and “still vulnerable.” In other words, the US or Israel can destroy those facilities. But the actual nuclear explosive device doesn’t need a sizable nuclear facility. Said Netanyahu, “The detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop, especially in Iran…The same is true for the small facility in which they could assemble a warhead or a nuclear device that could be placed in a container ship. Chances are you won’t find that facility either.”

United Nation observers in Iran www.wikipedia.org/sajed

As seen in North Korea, the facilities needed to build the bomb can be hidden well. It’s the enrichment process that’s the easiest to spot. Multiple North Korean nuclear fuel facilities are known, they just have never been destroyed. In the case of Iran, the same is also true. So Netanyahu underscored the point that if Iran is able to accumulate the fuel needed for nuclear weapons, then it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to stop them from building the actual weapons. Consequently, the focus lately has been Iran’s timeline: How long would it take them to develop the fuel needed for a weapon?

In October of last year, ISIS did an updated estimate of the amount of time it could take Iran to “break out” and develop the fuel needed for a nuclear weapon. Of course, those estimates are complicated, because it’s unknown if Iran has a secret enrichment facility. But assuming the best case scenario—that Iran only has the facilities we know about—they could still take their low-enriched uranium and build the bomb in two months or less. As ISIS President David Albright pointed out in an Op-Ed to the Washington Post, that’s still better than the one-month timeline Iran had before the nuclear deal with the world powers. But is it good enough?

The Nightmare Scenario


The frightening scenario could look something like this: Iran accuses the West of breaking their end of the nuclear deal and immediately begins ramping up all their nuclear enrichment activity and kicks out all the UN inspectors. Suddenly, Iran is on a “two-month or less” path to achieving the nuclear fuel for a bomb. The US tries to restart the deal but wastes time in fruitless negotiations. And Iran has been using the six months of “freeze” time to perfect their weapons testing. While the US is still trying to get the UN to authorize more sanctions or to use force, Iran tests a nuclear device and announces they can mount them on missiles capable of hitting Saudi Arabia or Israel.

Could it happen? Quite possibly. Iran’s deal with the world powers focused mostly on inspections and limiting their fuel enrichment. But it only slightly rolled back that fuel-producing ability—delaying their path to the bomb by only a month or so. That’s why the West and Israel need to be ready; if Iran makes a move, there’s no time to waste. If suspicious activity is occurring, war needs to be on the table. Iran has taken decades to get to this point, as they, like North Korea, have carefully attended to every detail. And of course, the old saying tells us that the devil is in the details. Now it’s up to the world to keep a close eye on Iran’s details before that devil gets loose.

Source: By Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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