Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Iran's Nuclear Program and the US Navy

On my better days, I sometimes pore over a fair amount of material without actually have a particular take on what I'm reading. Now I'm no expert on nuclear issues but I've been reading about nuclear weapons and arms control from time to time for more than thirty years (mostly in Scientific American and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists with a few books thrown in now and then). Once some of the basics become clear, it's easier for nonexperts like myself to understand some of the issues but it's also easy to miss some things. The material and links below are very much worth reading but take them with a grain of salt.

Here's a post by Steve Clemons of The Washington Note concerning Iran's nuclear program and the naval situation in the gulf:
Chris Nelson Provides Reality Check on Iran's Nuke Capacity

Chris Nelson has some great stuff on Iran tonight. I had not heard until tonight that Iran failed to bring its centrifuges on line and that the 50 they assembled blew up.

(snip)

IRAN. . .recent news stories out of the Middle East seem to be generating a sense that Iran is closer to a successful nuclear weapons capability than had previously been thought, and that the risk to Israel is rising to the point where Israel is moving closer to a decision to "take out" the Iranian nuclear weapons facilities.

Balderdash, our informed sources continue to maintain.

Yes, it does seem to be true that Iran has accelerated its program to bring on line the 3,000 centrifuges required to generate nuclear fuel. . .but it also seems true (and not Iranian disinformation) that of the 50 centrifuges recently hooked up, all 50 blew up.

(snip) [The following is from a Chris Nelson source about our Navy]

This deployment is carefully calibrated. It could have been larger. Increasing to two carrier strike groups in the AOR serves as a firm signal and deterrent, reminding everyone US has bench strength; the US also still can "reach out and touch someone."

(snip)

On the other hand, increasing to three carrier strike groups would be noticeably more 'robust', belligerent and suggestive of intending or anticipating attack. The difference between two and three strike groups is huge. ...

Clemons posted a link to this report by Paul Kerr of the Arms Control Association:
Iran continues to advance its nuclear programs even as diplomatic efforts to contain it continue, according to a Nov. 14 report from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to the agency’s Board of Governors. ElBaradei also reported that investigators have not been able to make progress in their investigation of Tehran’s nuclear activities for months, although Iran promised some renewed cooperation with the agency in late November.

Uranium Enrichment Continues

The report indicates that Iran is moving forward with its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. They can produce low-enriched uranium (LEU), which can be used in nuclear reactors, and highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used in certain types of nuclear reactors and as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

ElBaradei confirmed that Iran has been testing centrifuges in its pilot uranium-enrichment facility with uranium hexafluoride “during intermittent periods,” although they have mostly been operated without nuclear material.

And finally I came across this detailed article and analysis in Haaretz by Yossi Melman but have no idea how accurate the reporting is:
About a week ago, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) completed a routine visit to nuclear sites in Iran. They were surprised to discover that in the city of Natanz no real work has been accomplished in several months. In Natanz, approximately 400 kilometers from Tehran, Iran is building a large plant to enrich uranium, an important step on its way to mastering nuclear technology and producing nuclear weapons.

In all scenarios dealing with the possibility of Israel attacking Iran's nuclear sites, the Natanz plant plays a central role. The site has two plants: One is the pilot and is supposed to operate some 3,000 uranium gas-powered centrifuges. The second, much larger installation, is intended in the future to absorb and operate up to 60,000 centrifuges. It will not be easy to strike at these installations, which were built deep underground and are protected from bombs by reinforced concrete up to 20 meters thick and anti-aircraft defense systems, including state-of-the-art Russian-made missiles.

(snip)

Iran is conducting inspections and tests at the experimental facility to test the centrifuges' operation. These are sensitive and complex processes technologically speaking: The centrifuges must be fed uranium after it has undergone a chemical process of conversion from ore (yellow cake) to gas, a process that is completed at another facility (located in Isfahan). The gas is placed in a centrifuge and it is operated. The experiment is meant to ascertain, among other things, whether the centrifuge blades are functioning properly.

How can a chain of centrifuges be connected in a single system called a cascade (each cascade has 164 centrifuges)? How do several cascades connected to each other function simultaneously and continuously and for how long? What is the quality of the uranium they enrich? What malfunctions occur during the operating process? All of these are important questions that only trials conducted at nuclear installations can provide answers to. Only then will it be possible to know if and when Iran will succeed in mastering nuclear technology processes and turn into a nuclear power.

All three articles contain more information so give them a read if you have the time.

There are different ways to interpret some of the above information, depending how accurate any particular part of it is. Here's a problem to ponder: Bush and Cheney have a poor record of performance and have no credibility when it comes to their word. Is it possible to trust their decisions on such complex issues?

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3 Comments:

Blogger Mike Bock said...

Thanks for the info. Part of the argument for attacking Iraq was that Iraq would soon have nuclear weapons and that to wait for irrefutable evidence of a nuclear program could be a big mistake -- as Condi Rice famously said, if we wait to find a smoking gun, we might find that the smoking gun is a mushroom cloud. Your post shows that the technology needed to even make the fuel for a nuclear bomb is very complicated, certainly beyond what Iraq could possibly have mustered in the run up to the war and that Rice was simply fear-mongering. The way we were sold a policy of war was outrageous -- and the same people who lied to us are still in charge.

5:50 AM  
Blogger Craig said...

Mike, good to hear from you again. The thing that bothered me about the White House take on the North Korean test this fall was that they tried to peddle the idea that maybe their poor yield was really a sign of a sophisticated suitcase bomb, as if the North Koreans could make such a leap from nothing to very high tech.

12:07 AM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

I continue to be amazed that so many people somehow expect to keep other countries from developing nuclear technology for a variety of purposes, including weaponry.

I would prefer that no additional countries get nukes, of course. But being realistic, that would go against all we know about the history of technology in general and weapons in particular.

That Bush & Co. have made keeping Iran from doing this the setup for another alleged causus belli is just absurd.

Bush, Cheney and Rice don't need to worry about Iran developing a nuclear bomb. They do need to worry about developing, at long last, some diplomatic strategy and skills, and then becoming game enough to try using those skills.

1:04 PM  

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