Latest Assessment of Iran’s Nuke Capability

ISIS Report —

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), released a new assessment of Iran’s nuclear capability on June 15, 2012. The 13-page report by David Albright and Christina Walrond is titled: “Iranian Production of 19.75 Percent Enriched Uranium: Beyond Its Realistic Needs” (PDF). The report assesses the length of time that Iran would need to make enough weapons grade uranium (WGU), which is U-235 enriched above 90%, to make at least one nuclear bomb. The amount of 20% U-235 (technically, the percent is 19.75) needed to make one bomb is said to be 225 kg.

“About 225 kilograms of 19.75 percent LEU hexafluoride are needed to produce 25 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium metal, a standard measure of enough WGU for a crude nuclear weapon.” (p. 5)

Iran currently has about 100 kg of 20% uranium, according to IAEA reports. ISIS examines several different scenarios under which Iran might obtain enough WGU for one nuclear weapon. Essentially, each scenario has three steps:

1. Iran obtains enough 20% uranium for at least one nuke
2. Iran kicks IAEA inspectors out of the nation
3. Iran rushes to make enough 90% uranium for a nuke before a military strike occurs

Steps two and three are called a ‘breakout’ — Iran breaks away from IAEA inspections and from its current pattern of enriching uranium to 3.5% and 20%, in order to quickly make enough 90% WGU. Given a worst case scenario for us (a best case scenario for Iran), ISIS estimates that Iran could complete its breakout in “about 0.7-1.0 months” (p. 9). Given a more likely and slower progression to sufficient WGU, the breakout time rises to anywhere from 1.2 to 2.9 months (p. 8). Of course, in other scenarios, much higher numbers are possible for breakout time.

The ISIS report concludes with the following warning:

“Under its current rate of production, Iran is expected to have enough 19.75 percent LEU, if further enriched to WGU, for a nuclear weapon by early next year. If it expands the number of tandem sets of cascades making 19.75 percent LEU by only two this summer, it would have enough material for a nuclear weapon by the end of 2012.” (p. 9)

Hidden Facility?

The ISIS analysis relies on certain assumptions. They assume that Iran does not have a third uranium enrichment facility that is unknown to the IAEA and the West. In a separate report, “Is Iran Building a Third Enrichment Plant?“, David Albright and Andrea Stricker consider the possibility that Iran might be building a third facility without the knowledge of the West. Worse still, Iran might keep such a facility secret and inactive, until a future breakout attempt:

“Iran may not in fact declare a plant’s existence six months before introducing nuclear material but instead hold it in reserve for use in a future breakout.”

If such a facility exists, lower breakout times become more likely. Is it possible that another uranium enrichment plant exists that is unknown to the IAEA. Yes, it is possible. The IAEA has limited resources and personnel. The government of Iran has put billions of dollars and very many man-hours into its nuclear program. In a sense, Iran and the IAEA are opponents. But the former opponent has vastly greater resources than the latter. Therefore, it is possible that Iran has successfully hidden some of its nuclear capabilities and resources from the IAEA.

Hidden Stockpile?

But I will propose another worst case scenario. Suppose that Iran has succeeded in producing more 20% uranium at Fordow and Natanz than it has reported, more than the IAEA inspectors have verified and safe-guarded. Iran could have slowly accumulated substantially more 20% U-235 than the IAEA believes. The more 20% uranium Iran possesses, the shorter the breakout time. If Iran suddenly re-tasks all of its centrifuge cascades with purifying this larger amount of 20% uranium to 90% WGU, the breakout time falls to a month or less.

But, as I said, a breakout assumes Iran kicks out inspectors and then begins a rush to make a weapon. Alternately, if Iran has a hidden third enrichment facility, they could already be purifying 90% uranium at a relatively slow but steady pace. In this worst of the worst cases scenario, there would be no breakout. IAEA inspectors continue to inspect the two known facilities. Iran uses 20% uranium skimmed from its purification process over the past many months at the third unknown facility. Eventually, Iran obtains enough WGU for one or more nukes without ever kicking out inspectors. Next, they build one or more nuclear bombs. They would have nukes before the West realizes it.

Alternately, they could expel the IAEA inspectors, and then use all of their 20% uranium to make a nuke.

But is it possible, given IAEA inspections and safeguards, for Iran to have skimmed some 20% uranium from the known facilities?

Suppose you work at a manufacturing plant, making some product (‘widgets’) and you decide you want to steal some widgets from the factory. All of your co-workers will turn you in, if they find out you are stealing. Management will not tolerate thefts, and they monitor the production lines and the expected output of the factory. Could you succeed? Maybe. Thefts from stores and factories by employees occur all the time. You might find a way.

But at an uranium enrichment facility, one employee could not steal some U-235.

Suppose you work at a widget factory, and you and several co-workers decide to skim some widgets from the assembly line, and sell them on your own. Now you have more resources for your theft, resources that can be used to overcome whatever safeguards management uses to prevent thefts. Again, you could succeed and on a larger scale.

But at an uranium enrichment facility, several employees working together still could not steal some U-235.

Now suppose that the entire manufacturing facility, all of its workers and management and the owners, and the government in the nation where the factory is located, all decide to cooperate together to make more widgets than their opponents in the widget industry would realize. They would succeed, and on a much larger scale. This type of large-scale skimming does occur. In factories in China, contracted to produce a brand-name product by company ‘A’, the factory management and workers produce more of that product than they were authorized to make, and they hide the excess from the company that hired them, and then sell that excess as knock-offs — except that the knock-offs are exactly the same as the brand-name product. This process occurs with the tacit approval of the government.

But at an uranium enrichment facility, safeguarded by a team of under-funded and under-staffed IAEA inspectors, even the entire staff and management at the facility, working under the direction a well-funded and highly-motivated government couldn’t possibly — Oh, wait. Yes, they could. The inspectors are not at the facility all the time; they only visit periodically. They have limited resources and the government of Iran has vast resources. They definitely could find a way to make more 20% uranium than the IAEA realizes, and store it at a separate location, with zero IAEA knowledge or ‘safeguards’.

Remember the U.N.’s oil for food program in Iraq? The U.N. monitored the sale of the oil and the use of its proceeds to ensure that the money only went to buy food and medicine. But this program and its safeguards failed on a massive scale. The Iraqi government skimmed billions of dollars from the program, over the course of a number of years. Safeguards can fail, especially when a nation applies its many resources to overcoming those safeguards.

Has Iran been skimming 20% uranium from its enrichment facilities? Possibly. The ISIS report of 15 June 2012 states that the enrichment cascades used by Iran have historically “not been optimal” (p. 8). The centrifuge “cascades have underperformed” (p. 4). In other words, despite pouring billions of dollars and much time and effort into these enrichment facilities, they have consistently produced less 20% uranium than expected. Or maybe the facilities have produced more 20% uranium than they have reported, and the excess has been stored at a separate facility, in preparation for a nuclear weapons breakout.

Sooner or later, Iran is going to obtain nukes. And then there will be war.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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