War/Security

Nuclear-power fuel too close to nuclear-weapon fuel for comfort

Deproliferator1.0THE DEPROLIFERATOR — Recent statements by its chief representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency suggest that Iran may be backing away from an agreement to ships it low-enriched nuclear fuel to Russia for further enriching. Even, though, after agreeing to the deal, President Ahmadinejad, ever the master of the sweeping gesture, said the West had “moved from confrontation to cooperation.”

Among reasons to hope that Iran relents is a fact of which many who proclaim Iran has a right to a nuclear program seem ignorant. Turns out that transubstantiating the fuel used for nuclear energy into nuclear-weapon fuel, far from a miracle, is all too commonplace.

The Hudson Institute’s Christopher Ford explains (sorry, misplaced the link).

Reactor fuel production is worrisome enough all by itself, because in enriching uranium to LEU [low-enriched uranium] reactor fuel levels the Iranians would have already done most of the work necessary to enrich to weapons-usable HEU [highly-enriched uranium].

At Huffington Post, Bruno Pellaud, former deputy director general of the International Atomic Agency, adds some seasoning to Ford’s remarks:

. . . [LEU] (some 4% enriched) is already a long way towards the weapon-relevant [HEU] (some 90%), much more than these two figures seem to indicate. In the physics of enrichment, it’s like a pre-cooked cake, so well pre-cooked that a few minutes in the micro-oven suffices to bring it to the table.

Ford again (emphasis added):

. . . it takes a certain number of [Sleep-Inducing Technical Term, or SITT — RW] to enrich uranium all the way to weapons-usable levels, but by the time one gets to [LEU] most of that work has already been accomplished. It takes fewer [SITT] to finish the job than to get to [LEU] in the first place, so possessing a supply of uranium that is already LEU makes it much easier to enrich to HEU levels [but] at a secret additional facility.

This is nothing new, Ford explains in a previous paper. Describing the early U.S. nuclear years, he writes: “Thinkers of the period were painfully aware of what we might today call the problem of the ‘latent’ or ‘virtual’ nuclear weapons programs [which can be ramped up in case of a threat — RW] afforded by possession of nuclear fuel-making capabilities. As U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, the true ‘measure of atomic armament’. . . was to be found less in what [a country] actually had ‘put into a bomb'” than in the sum-total of its fissionable material.

Therefore, writes Pellaud:

For the time being, this shipment to Russia. . . eliminates the [risk of a nuclear weapons breakout]. Some would argue that Iran would only send to Russia part of its LEU stockpile and keep hidden any past clandestine production of LEU. Not so easy. The IAEA would indeed detect such dissimulation, [like it] kept track [of the] 350 tonnes of raw uranium that Iran had purchased from Namibia in the seventies.

Besides, wrote Andreas Persbo in March at Verification, Implementation, and Compliance, winner of the award for Highest-Traffic-Generating Blog Title three years running (not):

A break-out at this stage would be very risky for the Iranian government. The amassed low-enriched material is about right for one uranium-based weapon, but in order to get that processed into weapons-grade, Iran would need to reconfigure the cascade and run the material through the facility again. Then, the weapons grade material would need to [go through a Tedious Technical Process, or TTP — RW].

How long will that process take?

… a minimum of two months. Add another four to five months to [endure yet another TTP] and we’re up to half a year. Even if the Iranians have done their weaponization homework, they’ll have to move from theory to practice for the first time. [What’s more] they only have enough material for one weapon. It is literally a one-shot deal. …

If Iran really wants to acquire a nuclear weapon, the best strategy would be to bypass safeguards altogether and to build a clandestine enrichment facility.

Which, of course, it since did — the Fordo facility near Iranian holy city Qom, from which an International Atomic Energy Agency inspection team just returned. “We had a good trip,” said the mission head.

First posted at the Faster Times.

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