Thursday, October 26, 2006

Making Progress?

Iran has announced plans to begin operating a second set of uranium centrifuges in the coming days. Spinning at supersonic speeds, the centrifuges can produce fuel for nuclear power plants, or (more likely, in the case of Iran), nuclear bombs.

A statement from the official Iranian news agency states that Tehran has already begun "dry testing" a second set of 164 centrifuges, and will begin injecting UF-6 gas into the devices in the coming days. Gas insertion represents the next, critical step in using the centrifuges to produce nuclear fuel. Iran began operating its first set of centrifuges in April, producing a tiny amount of enriched uranium.

Tehran's decision to open a second centrifuge array is clearly an act of defiance--but does it indicate substantial progress toward producing a nuclear bomb? As we noted six months ago, using the centrifuges to produce enriched uranium is an important technological step, but Iran still faces critical hurdles in operating enough centrifuges to produce required quantities of nuclear fuel--and at the purity required for use in a weapon. Two cascades (with a total of 328 centrifuges) leaves Iran on the slow track for weapons development. To produce a bomb over the short term (say, the next year or 18 months), Tehran would need as many as 54,000 of the older centrifuges, or at least 12-13,000 of the larger P-2 models. Iran supposedly gained access to P-2 technology through Pakistan's infamous A.Q. Kahn nuclear proliferation ring. At this point, we don't know what type of centrifuges are being used in the Iranian cascades.

We're also unsure about the quality of enriched uranium now being produced. Fuel for nuclear power plants is typically low-grade stuff (around 5%--within Iran's current technical capabilities). On the other hand, the level required for weapons-grade material is much, much higher, and (so far) there's no definitive word on whether Tehran has crossed that threshhold. It's also worth noting that these capabilities are based, in part, on "official" Iranian claims. There is continued concern that Tehran may also be operating a covert nuclear program, housed in undisclosed research complexes and military facilities. A covert program might be much further along the weapons development track, operating larger centrifuge arrays, and producing enriched uranium at much higher purity levels.

If the "official" cascade reports are accurate, Iran is probably four years--or more--away from having the bomb, possibly longer. But, if Tehran is also operating a parallel, covert track, the timetable for nuclear weapons may be much shorter. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that Iran probably has some semblance of a covert program, a hedge against potential sanctions and/or military action by the west. We'll stand by our assessment of six months ago: the window of opportunity for heading off Iran's nuclear program is closing, and closing rapidly.


RussInSoCal said...

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Thank you for your service and keep it up - makes me look smart in other conversations.

cynical joe said...

I think the US and Europe will huff and puff but realistically the decision has already been made by default to allow Iran to have the bomb. There are simply no good options to stop it.

eatyourbeans said...

Indeed. Some clever French people argue that the best way to resolve the Iran crisis is to do absolutely nothing. This way, runs the thinking, the Middle East will calm down, oil prices will plummet, Tehran will no longer be rolling in cash, they'll have to cut back on financing a-bombs and terrorism, in fact they'll be too busy staving off the complete collapse of the Iranian economy to trouble the world any further. Indeed, with no foreign enemies on the horizon with which to distract the people from their misery, the regime will quickly fall to a popular uprising.

So runs the theory of clever, clever people in Europe.

CatoRenasci said...

eatyourbeans: are these the same clever, clever people in Europe who brought us the Bosnian crises, the World Wars, the Versailles treaty, appeasement, and so on? Or their children? No thank you, I'm not buying any.

eatyourbeans said...


The very same. And no, I'm not buying it either. When I read such stuff I'm reminded a story. One day the owner of a beach resort had one his his employees post a sign that read SHARKS KEEP OUT. But the idiot planted it facing seaward.....

blert said...

For the chemically engineering challenged: getting from natural concentrations up to 5% is hell, from there up to bomb grade -- it's a bomb in the park.

It's over 60 years since Trinity. Iran /Nork intends to skip the early designs ( courtesy of their godfather: China ) and jump to the H-bomb.

Former Sec State James Baker openly admitted that Nork was credited by the US Admin in HIS day as having a 'rudimentary nuclear deterent'....

That's sixteen years back!

Carter sabotaged Clintion's military strike against the Norks in '94.

Note the smoke between them whenever they meet on stage.

Carter was and is our first traitor ex-president. And it's Clinton he screwed. Clinton, and the rest of the planet.

THAT'S why the '94 deal was struck... the one that in retrospect humiliates the Clinton administration. It was the best they could deal after Carter stabbed them in the face.

Folks, we're way beyond fission now.

And as for Nork being independent of China... just how so?

The simple fact is that China is driven and riven by factions: North vs South. The Communist absolutists are funding Nork every day. Without China, Nork implodes within 10 days.

She can't even figure to feed her troops. It's all bullets -- no bread for the Norks.

It's now very obvious that Hitler was on drugs while making the most critical decisions of WWII. Kim may be just so. Only a drugged mind would bite the China that feeds him -- boosting locomotives.

As for the insanity of Iran: they actually believe in the Mahdi pulling their chestnuts out of the fire. Now that's the ultimate in crazy. It's like a parody of a parody: the Muslims that Roared.