IMPORTANT UPDATE: News reports today (May 25) state that Iran has increased its total 20% uranium to 145 kg AND inspectors detected traces of uranium at 27% enrichment.
Some experts are opining that the 27% enrichment could be a technical glitch. Iran gives the same explanation. But I doubt that explanation: 27% is 35% higher than the 20% level. That’s quite a large overshoot of the goal of 20%. It is very difficult to purify uranium to even the 20% level. Iran has spent billions of dollars and decades working on this goal. It simply is not believable that the traces of 27% uranium were accidental.
I suggest, instead, that Iran is purifying 20% uranium toward the 90% weapons grade goal. The 27% may be a small leak from one step in that process. We should not assume that the traces of 27% represents the highest level at the facility.
Now for the rest of the article, written yesterday, and edited today.
Does Iran have nuclear weapons yet? I don’t believe so. Once they obtain working nuclear bombs, two or more — one to use and at least one to hold in reserve as a threat — then they will likely abandon the current set of nuclear talks (the 5+1 talks). Right now, Iran is merely stalling for time. The May 23rd talks were entirely unfruitful, and the next talks do not occur until mid-June. It is very unlikely that those talks will be the last, and so this stretches the delay of any military strike into July or perhaps August.
Has Iran begun to purify 90% uranium. Yes, I think so. They know that they are under a deadline. Israel might strike Iran this summer. The U.S. may strike Iran sometime after the November elections, or we may at least support Israel in its attacks, providing bunker buster bombs. Knowing of this deadline, but being unsure just when this type of military attack might begin, Iran must press its nuclear program toward completion as quickly as possible.
Currently, Iran is estimated to have about 116 kg [updated to 145 kg today] of 20% uranium, that we know of. I cannot stress this point enough. We can’t assume that they only have the amounts that they have reported to the IAEA. But in any case, 116 kg is enough uranium, if purified to 90%, to make 4 or 5 nuclear bombs. [145 kg is enough for 5 or 6 bombs.]
Also in the early part of this year, Iran added hundreds of next generation centrifuges, increasing the total number of centrifuges at two facilities: Fordow and Natanz. They have spent a great deal of time and effort ramping up their centrifuge capability, and they did so about the same time that they obtained enough 20% uranium to make several bombs. They also made a change to their centrifuge systems, linking two cascades together, in order to obtain a new level of efficiency in purification. All of this has been reported in the mass media earlier this year. And IAEA inspectors have been repeatedly refused entry to Iranian nuclear facilities for many months now.
In my view, all these factors indicate that Iran has already begun purifying 90% uranium. At this point in time (May 24, 2012), they may have been working at that task for a couple of months or longer. This means that they may already have enough 90% uranium for one bomb. They need at least two, so that if they use one, they can prevent a retaliatory strike by threatening to use the other. Better still if they have 3 or 4, so that 2 or 3 could be used as threats after the first one is used.
They also need to make that purified uranium into a hollow sphere, in order to fit it into a nuclear device. According to the Nov 2011 IAEA report, Iran already has designed, tested, and built virtually all of the part for a nuclear bomb except that hollow sphere of 90% uranium. It might take them a few weeks to complete the device, once they obtain enough 90% uranium.
What will be the indications that Iran has completed 2 or more nuclear bombs? There are several possibilities. Iran might announce this feat, since they like to brag about their nation’s capabilities. Iran might test one of the bomb, since they have built, and tested the electronics for, an underground nuclear testing facility. More likely, they would have enough confidence in their design not to test it at all. At this point in history, nuclear bomb design is well understood. They might simply use it to nuke one of their enemies, most likely the U.S.
Iran might pull out of nuclear talks once they have the bomb. Or they might continue the talks until they actually use one of the bombs in an attack. However, I suspect that there will be two important key indicators, once Iran has working nukes:
1. Sharia law requires an offer of peace to be extended to an enemy before the opening of hostilities. Iran thinks of itself as the leader of the Muslim religion worldwide. So they will have to follow this rule, though I think they will do so with extreme insincerity. The West should carefully parse any public statements or proclamations by Iran, especially any that come directly from the top Ayatollah, to look for any fulfillment of this offer-of-peace requirement.
2. Iran will likely change its attitude in its public expressions, and in the way that it deals with other nations. I’m not sure what form this would take. But a criminal who believes he has the upper hand, due to some hidden weapon, behaves differently than a criminal who knows that he is outgunned.
How soon will Iran have enough 90% uranium for 3 or 4 bombs? It takes an estimated two to three months from the start of purifying 90% U-235 to the completion of a nuclear bomb [CNN.com]. They have been at this task for perhaps two full months already. One more month or so, and Iran may have a working nuke. Perhaps by late June or early July, Iran could have a working nuclear bomb, for testing or perhaps immediate use. If the latter, then an attack would probably occur this summer (June, July, or August).