I wanted to know for myself just how scary is the Iran question? I wanted to know the answer to several questions in relation to an Atomically able Iran. What will it take for Iran to build a Nuclear Bomb? What if Iran already has a bomb, how will they deliver it? UPS? If Iran is not only capable of building a Bomb what can be done to stop them from completing it?
Let’s look at the facts….
A middle of the road view by both the American Department of Defense and the British Office of Special Operations believe that Iran is probably a little less than a decade away from developing a nuclear weapon. That is unless they receive help from an outside source.
The core issue is how long it will take Iran to enrich a few tens of kilograms of uranium to more than 90 percent U-235. Dafna Linzer reported that the US Intelligence Community does not believe that Iran could do so before “early to mid next decade” A questionable revision of previous assessments by the Bush Administration. Previously, it was believed that Iran would “have the ability to produce nuclear weapons in the later part of this decade.” Why the wait? The answer is that Iran has yet to build, install and begin operating its centrifuges to enrich Uranium. David Albright and Corey Hinderstein at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) released an estimate that breaks down the steps for Iran to make fissile material for a bomb.
Hurdles in Building a Centrifuge Plant
A key part of the development of Iran’s gas centrifuge program is the operation of a 164-machine cascade at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Facility (PFEP) at Natanz, Iran. The installation of the first such test cascade was finished in the fall of 2003 but it never operated with uranium hexafluoride prior to the start of the suspension in November of 2003. It was not operated during the suspension. Until the start of the suspension, Iran had used uranium hexafluoride in single machine tests and a small cascade of 19 machines. Several of these tests encountered problems.
To operate this cascade at the pilot facility, Iran needs to take several steps before it can introduce uranium hexafluoride into the system. It first has to repair or replace any damaged centrifuges. According to IAEA reports, about 30% of the centrifuges crashed or broke when the cascade was shut down at the start of the suspension. In addition, Iran disconnected some of the pipes and exposed the pipes to humidity which could have caused corrosion. After making necessary repairs, Iran then has to finish connecting all the pipes, establish a vacuum inside the cascade, start the process of turning on the centrifuges and then running them under vacuum for several weeks, and prepare the cascade for operation with uranium hexafluoride. Iran may start enriching uranium in a subset of this cascade sooner, but it could take two or more months to ready the whole cascade for the use of uranium hexafluoride. If Iran does not encounter any significant problems, such as excessive vibration of the centrifuges or leakage of the vacuum, Iran could then introduce uranium hexafluoride into the entire cascade and start enriching uranium. Iran would want to operate the cascade for several more months to ensure that no significant problems develop and gain confidence that it can operate the cascade with uranium hexafluoride. Absent major problems, Iran will need roughly six months to one year to demonstrate successful operation of this cascade.
Once Iran overcomes the last technical hurdle of operating its test cascade, it can duplicate it and create larger cascades. Iran would then be ready to build a centrifuge plant able to produce significant amounts of enriched uranium either for peaceful purposes or for nuclear weapons.
The PFEP can hold a total of six, 164-machine cascades for a total of about 1000 machines, although Iran may build fewer cascades or change the number of centrifuges per cascade. Without major modifications, this facility is unlikely to be used to make significant amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons.
The Fuel Enrichment Plant
Iran has indicated to the IAEA that it plans to start industrial scale operations soon, which likely means that it plans to install centrifuges or related equipment in the underground buildings of the main Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP). Until the end of the suspension, Iran had not installed any centrifuges at the FEP, where it plans eventually to install about 50,000 machines. It plans to install the centrifuges in modules of 3,000 machines that would be designed to produce low enriched uranium for power reactors. In a case where just 1,500 of these centrifuges were installed and optimized to produce HEU, these centrifuges could produce enough highly enriched uranium for about one nuclear weapon per year. When completed, the FEP could be used to produce roughly 500 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium annually. At 15-20 kilograms per weapon, that would be enough for 25-30 nuclear weapons per year.
Time to the Bomb
It is difficult to estimate how long it would take Iran to be able to build its first nuclear weapon, assuming Iran makes such a decision. The key to predicting a timetable is understanding the pace and scope of Iran's gas centrifuge program. Prior to the November 2004 suspension, Iran had an estimated 700 assembled centrifuges that were in good
condition and usable in centrifuge cascade. Also, Iran has enough disassembled parts for more than a thousand additional P-1 centrifuges. At past rates of production, Iran can make and assemble about 70-100 centrifuges per month, and could therefore have a total of 1,300-1,600 centrifuges by late 2006, if they resume centrifuge manufacturing in January 2006. Combining all these centrifuges into cascades, installing control equipment, building feed and withdrawal systems, and testing the plant would take at least another year.
Given another year to make enough HEU for a nuclear weapon and a few more months to convert the uranium into weapon components, Iran could have its first nuclear weapon in 2009. By this time, Iran is assessed to have had sufficient time to prepare the other components of a nuclear weapon, although the weapon may not be deliverable by a ballistic missile.
This result reflects a worst case assessment, and thus is highly uncertain. Though some analysts at the IAEA believe that Iran could assemble centrifuges quicker, other analysts, including those in the US intelligence community, appear to believe that a date of 2009 would be overly optimistic. They believe that Iran is likely to encounter technical difficulties that would significantly delay bringing a centrifuge plant into operation. Factors causing delay include Iran having trouble making so many centrifuges in that time period or it taking longer than expected to overcome difficulties in operating the cascades or building a centrifuge plant. As to Iran being only months away from a bomb are really statements about how close Iran will be once it completes the FEP—something, as you will soon see, that will take a few years.
So, How Long in real world figures?
Iran plans to house about 50,000 centrifues in the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz in order to produce low enriched uranium for a notional civil nuclear power program. The output of a centrifuge is measured in “seperative work units”—a measure of the amount of work required to enrich a given amount (product) uranium. In math:
Separative work per unit of product = V(XP) – V (XW) – F/P *[V(XF) – V(XW)]
V(S) = (2*S – 100) * LOG (S/(100-S)]
F/P = (XP- XW)/(XF-XW), where
XF = feed assay (W/O)XP = product assay (W/O)XW = tails assay (W/O)V = separation potentialS = XF, XP, or XWF/P = feed to product ratio
So, how much SWU is required to produce 25 kg of HEU (a few thousand depending on some technical factors). Each of Iran’s centrifuges has an output between 2-3 SWU/year. Iran plans a that the full scale FEP at Natanz will house 50,000 centrifuges, giving the plant a capacity of 150,000 SWU/year—enough for annual reloads of LEU for the Bushehr reactor. So the answer in laymens terms is 25-30 nuclear weapons worth of HEU material per production year.
Of course, those are Iran’s “admitted” physical assets and production capabilities. The United States C.I.A. believes that Iran is closer to possessing about 700+ centrifuges, as well as components for another 1,000.
So, the real question, however, is how quickly Iran could assemble and operate 1,500 centrifuges in a crash program to make enough HEU for one bomb (say 15-20 kg).
Albright and Hinderstein have created a notional timeline for such a program:
1) Assemble 1,300-1,600 centrifuges. Assuming Iran starts assembling centrifuges at a rate of 70-100/month, Iran will have enough centrifuges in 6-9 months.
2)Combine centrifuges into cascades, install control equipment, building feed and withdrawal systems, and test the Fuel Enrichment Plant. 1 year
3)Enrich enough HEU for a nuclear weapon. 1 year
4)Weaponize the HEU. A “few” months.
If Iran receives no help and is NOT hindered in anyway by the International community total time to a fully functioning Nuclear bomb is about three years. This timeline is a worst case scenario which assumes Iran encounters no significant material or scientific problems along the way.
Let’s examine some of the problems Iran may run into
One technical problem—the inability of Iran to make relatively pure uranium hexafluoride (“hex”) to be fed into centrifuges for enrichment. Before introducing UF6 into a centrifuge cascade, the Iranians must rid the gas of impurities like MoF6 or the impurities will plug cascade piping, crashing Iran’s centrifuges. Iran is having a big problem purifying hex at its Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) near Esfahan, Iran’s inability at making hex in part because the Clinton Administration convinced the Chinese to stop building the UCF. Dr Mohammad Saeidi, AEOI deputy for planning and international affairs, stated that the impact of the Chinese cut-off was a knee-blow to Iran’s Nuclear program. Iran also has had significant problems in the area of utilizing pulse columns to purify uranium.
The length of time it will take Iran to get it’s act together on these important technical issues is up in the air. There is a wide variety of estimates among intelligence services. Intelligence analysts do not agree on how long it will take Iran to solve current process chemical problems at its restarted Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) at Isfahan.
These difficulties have thus far prevented Iran from producing uncontaminated uranium hexafluoride (UF6) feedstock for its gas centrifuge enrichment program. Last month, as Iran prepared to operate the plant, Vienna officials said that Iran would require “at least several months” to address its problems (NF, 15 Aug., 1).
According to Israeli government analysts now examining related technical issues, it may take Iran two or three months to begin producing pure UF6. According to U.K. government experts, however, Iran may need about 18 months to do that.
One thing government analysts do agree on, is that the higher the enrichment level sought by Iran from its gas centrifuges, the more critical it will be for Iran to first eliminate technical problems associated with producing pure UF6. Despite sound bite hysteria Iran faces a serious number of technical hurdles before it can simply start churning out fissile material. Those real world challenges are going to years to solve.
The real ‘Wild Card’ in this mix has to be the Russian factor
The Russian government presently has a proposal on the table which would have Iran transfer to Russia its uranium for enrichment. However, this process can be used to make weapons-grade nuclear fuel. Under the Russian proposal, Iran would be allowed to continue to convert uranium ore at it’s Isfahan facility provided it then shipped it to Russia for enrichment.
The problem with this is that the Russians have also agreed to sell more than $1 billion worth of missiles and other defense systems to Iran. When interviewed by the Russian Tass news agency the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mikhail Kamynin, did not comment on specifics, saying in a statement only that they were "exclusively defensive weapons." Kamynin also added that the sales fully complied with nonproliferation commitments and Russian law. Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council stated that "Iran's and Russia's military cooperation is not a complicated issue. We are two sovereign nations engaged in combating US aggression."
The Iranians have officially downplayed the deal, telling the Islamic Republic News Agency on Saturday that Iran buys arms from many countries and would not under any circumstances stop.
What is known is that in November 2005 the Russian air Defense Ministry would transfer up to 30 Tor-M1 missile systems to Iran over the next two years. The C.I.A. has said the Tor-M1 system could identify up to 48 targets and fire at two targets simultaneously at a height of up to 20,000 feet. This specific surface to air weapon system is not capable of becoming a delivery vehicle for any Nuclear weapons systems. It is however the perfect weapon system for deterring U.S., Israeli, and European Union air strikes. With this Surface to Air (SAM) capabilities the Iranian Nuclear bomb program could go forward without any real threat of being shut down by air strikes. The Iranians know with this vital lynch pin removed the American arsenal an armed military response is unlikely. Any coalition response after the delivery of the Russian made Surface to Air missiles would have to include some type of armed invasion. This is something that both the E.U. and the American public have stated publicly would NOT support.
Delivery capability of the Iranians
Tehran has a large number of short range ballistic missiles (100-500 km range) like the CSS-8, Scud module B and Scud module C. Each can carry heavy payloads and reach targets very close to Iran. Though, they are famously inaccurate even for nuclear weapons.
Iran’s long range missiles which are capable of hitting American, Canadian, and the European continent, is the Shahab 3. The long range Shahab 3 missile is essentially an extended-range (1,300) version of the North Korean Na Dong missile. The American C.I.A. believes that Iran is most certainly developing an even longer range (2,000) km module B version the Na Dong missile. The Shahab-3 will be capable of carrying a 1,650-pound warhead; the Shahab-4 will include improved guidance components and can travel up to 1,240 miles with a warhead weighing up to 2,200 pounds.
The payload capacity is an very important factor is a ‘crash’ program such as Iran is under taking. Since we are talking about a crash program here—let’s assume that whatever Iran builds will not be tested except under what we might call “operational circumstances.”
Iran’s nuclear program is based around uranium, which can be made critical either by slamming a uranium pellet into a nearly critical mass of uranium (a gun-type device like we dropped on Hiroshima) or imploding sphere of uranium (like the Chinese did in the 1960s). The latter is the more likely route for a number of reasons, largely related to the size of the weapon. Since we are talking about a ballistic missile delivered weapon, let’s assume Iran goes the implosion route.
If past results are the benchmark then the most likely scenario of a new state producing it’s first (WMD) uranium based weapon would be a weight of 450-1000 kg, with a far heavier design more likely.
That’s pretty consistent with what we see from other nuclear states in their infancy. For example China’s first bomb—a uranium implosion device—weighed 1550 kg and had to be towed to the tower with a bulldozer.
What’s interesting is the Shahab-4 now has a modified nose section allowing it to hold a larger warhead and thus provide additional room for a nuclear device. Such extra room is vital as Iranian nuclear engineers would face major technical challenges in making the country’s first nuclear weapon light enough and small enough to fit on its existing missiles, particularly without benefit of having conducted full-scale nuclear weapons tests.
Israeli officials have said the larger nose section is capable of separation and visually appears similar to that used on the Russian SS-9 intercontinental ballistic missile. “It is not a copy of a known missile but the old Shahab-4 with major-league design changes. It’s clear that the new capability is the work of a team of highly seasoned missile engineers. With all facts pointing to a Russian design team rather than beginners luck,”
As far as current delivery capabilities of Iran to deliver a nuclear weapon, the outside best that Iran could hope for is maybe an Israeli city. Even that would be at the extreme edge of their missile delivery capabilities.
Can the West stop, slow down, or end Iran’s nuclear ambitions by armed intervention? The benchmark to the question would be the Israeli bombing operation conducted against Iraq’s in 1981. That armed intervention was successful in curtailing Iraq’s (WMD) program. Current available data suggests that Iran’s (WMD) production facilities are too spread out to allow a one sortie strike like the one Israel conducted against Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981. While Iran’s facilities are more spread out, there are key assets are highly vulnerable to Coalition air strikes. A properly timed and delivered bombing campaign would most certainly delay Iran’s (WMD) program by a few years.
Though, the time gained by armed intervention would be severely offset by unintended and unseen consequences. Such as partial or complete solidarity of the entire Mid-East Islamo-Fascist regimes which at the present are fractious with in fighting and religious differences.
If the available data bears out and Iran’s (WMD) program is not capable of operation in the seeable future then the case for military interdiction does not bear out. I do believe that the current administration in Iran folded into the modern climate of ‘State-less, Face-less’ terrorism makes an ‘Atomic Iran’ a very scary prospect. Bearing all the facts in mind I do believe that alternative avenues should be sought in stopping Iran from both building and needing an nuclear bomb. One scenario that would be acceptable to the West would be changing the administration in Iran to one more friendly and peace oriented. Another avenue might be economic incentives or sanctions such as has been used with North Korea. Added to that much of Iran’s reactor facilities are not even finished construction.
That might buy some additional time — but for what?
The result will likely be an Iranian nuclear program outside of IAEA safeguards. An Iranian bomb is not, yet, a foregone conclusion. The fact that Iran’s nuclear program has become an hot potato domestic issue points to the existence of doves among the Islamic hardliners. Though as the West continues galvanizing support for an armed response Iran’s hardliners will only push forward the (WMD) bomb program at all costs. This is where economic incentives in the form of carrot and stick talks might be very fruitful.
I believe that an armed incursion at this time is not warranted. Any such action would seriously inhibit the secularists within the Iranian parliament from achieving a less confrontational stance. A more middle of the road approach is the answer from both sides.