Monday, April 17, 2006

Numbers

In its latest verbal barrage, Tehran claims that it is testing a new centrifuge, that would allow it to enrich uranium faster, and (presumably) develop a nuclear weapon sooner. But that assertion is difficult to verify; as with other elements of the Iranian nuclear program, the centrifuge issue is a question of numbers--and it's unclear if Tehran has the numbers to back up its claims.

In a speech to students last week, Iranian President Mamoud Ahmadinejad claimed that his country is now testing a type P-2 centrifuge, which reportedly has four times the capacity of the P-1 models now in operation. Tehran has displayed drawings of the P-2 in the past; it is believed that they obtained designs from the centrifuge from Pakistan's A.Q. Kahn proliferation network. However, there is no indication that the larger centrifuges have entered operational service. IAEA inspectors paid a visit to the Iranian enrichment facility at Natanz over the weekend; the centrifuges at that complex are believed to be the older, P-1 variety.

The global community is understandably nervous about Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Oil is now at $70 a barrel, and worries about potential conflict in the Gulf Region are likely to drive the price higher. Precious metals are also higher, largely on growing concerns about the Iranian nuclear issue.

But a little perspective is also in order. Enriching enough uranium to produce a working nuclear weapon is very much a numbers game. Want a bomb fast? Then you'll need a cascade of centrifuges--the more, the better. Based on the best information I can find, the cascade observed in Natanz over the weekend had only 164 centrifuges, and the output is at a level of about 3.5%--high enough to produce fuel for a nuclear power reactor, but not sufficient for short-term weapons development. For that type of work, an output level of 90%--or higher--is optimum. To develop sufficient material for a bomb over say, the next year, you need a huge cascade of roughly 54,000 centrifuges.

And you don't jump from a relatively small cascade to a huge array overnight. Over the weekend, I had an e-mail exchange with a former weapons inspector, with extensive experience on the Iraqi nuclear issue, and some insight into the Iranian program. The former inspector believes that Iran will have to operate a small-scale cascade for at least 6-12 months before ramping up production. Obviously, the availabilty of P-2 centrifuges would help, but there is no evidence that Iran has the larger models in quantity (yet).

This former inspector also opined that Iran may have only a limited supply of the parts required for building centrifuges, estimating that Tehran might be able to assemble another 1-2,000 over the next year. Even if those are the larger P-2 models (and that's a stretch), it's still a long way from the 50,000 needed for fast-track, weapons-scale enrichment efforts (with the P-1), or the 12-13,000 needed, if the P-2 models are used. Beyond that, Iran still has the issues of output and quality to contend with.

A cautionary note: I am not trying to underestimate the menace posed by Iran's nuclear program. But Tehran still has significant technical and logistical barriers to overcome to reach the production levels needed to build a bomb. When will they overcome those hurdles? That's the $64,000 question, but given current levels of activity, Iran's progression along the enrichment track would probably produce a weapon in the 2009-2010 timeframe, and not in 2006 or 2007.

Having said that, we must emphasize (again) that there are significant gaps regarding what we actually know about Iran's nuclear program. The lack of P-2 centrifuges at Natanz may suggest that those models are being used (or will be used) in a parallel program at a covert facility. If the secret effort is more advanced/producing enriched uranium on a larger scale, Iran could have the material for a bomb before 2009 or 2010. As we've noted on numerous occasions, the possibility of a "dual track" nuclear program in Iran cannot be dismissed.

Late last week, a senior Israeli official stated that the west had missed the opportunity to head off Iran's nuclear program. I'm not sure the window of opportunity has closed completely, but it is closing, and our time for decisive action is probably measured in months--not years.

10 comments:

blert said...

The constant obsession with highly enriched uranium is causing the MSM and the bloggosphere to shift its gaze away from the heavy water converter gambit.

India, Israel etc used heavy water moderated reactors to get to the bomb. It is the fastest cheapest way to go.

Significantly Iran has had heavy water production since 1995. (IAEA)

The enrichment gambit really is the route to tritium. When Ahmadi-Nejad speaks of becoming a nuclear superpower it's because he intends to have hydrogen bombs.

The mullahs intend to sit at the big table right along with America, Russia and China. They are absolutely not interested in popping off just a few nukes and praying for the Mahdi. They want to pop of many, many nukes and pray.

Ahmadi-Nejad is crazy like a fox.

Until he is confronted militarily he's going to be a winner. All diplomacy is rendered useless with a player who sees no benefit in 'trading'.

Asher Abrams said...

What is your take on this article from Debka?
http://www.debka.com/article.php?aid=1158

"Hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim of Iranian success in low-level uranium enrichment was more bombastic than frank. Before springing his disclosure at a sacred mausoleum in the northern town of Mashhad on April 11, DEBKAfile’s Iranian sources disclose he paid a stealthy visit to Neyshabour in Khorassan, 38 kms to the southeast.
There, he inspected a project he omitted to mention in his Mashhad speech about low-level enrichment, namely, a top-secret plant under construction that is designed to run 155,000 centrifuges, enough to enrich uranium for 3-5 nuclear bombs a year.
This is Project B, or the hidden face of the enrichment plant open to inspection at Natanz.
This plant, due for completion next October, is scheduled to go on line at the end of 2007. According to our intelligence sources, running-in has begun at some sections of the Neyshabour installation, which is located 600 km northeast of Tehran. DEBKAfile’s sources reveal too that the Neyshabour plant has been built 150 m deep under farmland covered with mixed vegetable crops and dubbed Shahid Moradian, in the name of a war martyr as obscure as its existence.
Already hard at work at Iran’s most ambitious nuclear project are hundreds of Iranian engineers, experts and assistants under the instruction of foreign specialists in the technology of centrifuge operation. Neyshabour is guarded day and night by the special Revolutionary Guards Corps elite Ansar al-Mahdi unit.
In Moscow Thursday, April 13, US assistant secretary of state on arms control Stephen Rademaker calculated that, with 54,000 centrifuges, the Iranians could produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb in 16 days. ..."

Papa Ray said...

I keep thinking about the possibility that Iran already has some slighly shelf worn nukes that they got for cash from the Ukraine. Simonenko, started that rumor back in 2002 (cached version only one I could find quickly), or is it just a a book keeping error. (which I find not possible to believe)

If true that they were indeed missing, who might have them now? Who might have used them in total or just the goodies out of them and already have them mated to missiles.

Yea, that gives me many reasons to understand the wild, crazy talk of the Iranian President. Also of the words of his Supreme Leader.

What if all this (everything Iran says and does) is just a well thought out plan to make "The West", (read the U.S. or Israel) attack Iran so that they can fire off missiles into the pre-planned "23" (I think that was the number) targets that will damage us the most. Some of those targets could be on the U.S. mainland.

Nukes can be delivered across our borders now, and they could have been in the last few years.

How about this for a night mare. One nuke in each of the largest cities in our country. They set one off, then start blackmailing us.
They set one more off just to show they are not bluffing.

They can do this after we attack or if they get crazy enough or see that we are weak in our resolve (which I think we have already shown that this last year or so) they can explode one at any time they want.

If they can make a small bomb two years from now is not what worrys me and I don't think that is what is worrying Bush.

I hope I'm so wrong.

Papa Ray
West Texas
USA

kobekko said...

papa ray: right -- what is most worrying right now is what they have already gotten their hands on from the former Soviets.

Spook86 said...

Your comments about Israel and India are correct; however, Iran's heavy water program has lagged behind. The main facility at Khondab (Arak) is still under construction. If Khondab is the only heavy water plant, it probably wouldn't provide enough plutonium for a bomb until some time in the next decade.

The key word, of course, is "only." If Iran has a covert program, then there may be other heavy water facilities. Those sites might be more advanced, and could help produce a plutonium-based bomb more quickly.

Spook86 said...

Shoshanna--There may be more than an element of truth to the DEBKA report. While DEBKA's overall track record is spotty, at best, there has long been concern about the possible existence of nuclear facilities in eastern Iran.

Follow the main rail line heading east out of Tehran. Beyond the city, there isn't much, but the Iranians spent billions on that line that appears to go nowhere; certainly the number of passengers from Mashhad couldn't justify that level of investment; neither could potential trade with Afghanistan. A number of analysts in the intel community have long believed that this region is home to at least one major nuclear site, and possibly others as well. The location is remote; facilities could be more easily concealed, and it creates more targeting problems for potential adversaries, namely Israel.

On the other hand, any sites in eastern Iran are just a short hop from our bases in Afghanistan--something the Iranians never really counted on.

We've never been able to confirm convert nuke sites along the Tehran-Mashhad lines of communication, but you can't discount that possibility, either.

pete speer said...

The Iranian President has two years left on his term. The word is that the Mercedes Mullahs will have a more pragmatic candidate up and running by then. No second term for this incumbent.

Dr. A is treading close to blasphemy in his attempts to become either the precursor (think John the Baptist) of or the Hidden Imam. He lacks the spiritual education which is necessary under Shia. That is an end of the world role involving first total destruction and then the last Judgment (no different than the Revelations chapter in the Christian Bible.)

Don't believe that the Mullahs are ready for the end of the world to occur on their watch.

Right now Dr. A is pulling our chain and loving it. And so are the distracted Persian people whose economy is lousy. Nuclear power is not a nuclear bomb. Economically, Iran is better off using nucleat power and exporting oil and natural gas.

The Israelis directly and through Debka are pushing this threat as well.

The United States has scant options up to and including the use of our own nukes to destroy the hardened underground facilities and to sow enough radiation around them to be dead zones for one hundred year.

The question is, do we have the will to do this? And if we do, when?

Howard said...

Terrific piece. Check on making the steel rotors for the P-2. I think you will find that they are so difficult to make that Iran can't possibly have many. I think.

tcobb said...

I don't really understand the emphasis upon uranium bombs. It is very difficult to enrich uranium to bomb grade level. However, you don't have to enrich it all that much in order for it to power a reactor. And reactors generate plutonium, which can be extracted chemically.

I realize that it is much harder to build a plutonium bomb, but if you wish to acquire a large nuclear arsenal then this is the way you ultimately have to go. Making bombs out of enriched uranium is slow and expensive.

Is it possible that they are running a reactor and extracting plutonium from it now? Could it be that the current centrifuge thing is nothing more than a smokescreen?

John (Useful Fools) said...

This is my first time on this site, and this post and its comments are fascinating.

What has been bugging me is the question: Why are the Iranians talking so much and such great detail about their program, while simultaneously making lots of threats? Sure, the President of Iran is not the final authority, but A. does have a significant personal power base.

My suspicion is that Iran is seeking an attack, probably to make internal dissent easier to deal with. It is possible that A. apocalyptic desires are the reason, but that seems a bit far fetched. But they certainly are "cruising for a bruising" and there is probably a reason for that.

Any of the informed folks care to speculate?