MESOPOTAMIA NEWS Q & A : Weeks or years: Why estimates about Iran’s nuclear program seem confusing
On Wednesday reports emerged that Iran is making small amounts of uranium metal, which could be used in a core of a nuclear weapon.
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN JERUSALEM POST – FEBRUARY 11, 2021
In late January US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Iran could be “weeks away” from having enough material for a nuclear bomb. An IDF intelligence estimate reported on February 9 noted that it would take Iran about two years to build a bomb if it decides to build one. These kinds of estimates, which have been repeated over the years, often leave people confused. They also lead to contradictory headlines, some appearing to justify Israel’s concern and also appearing to justify claims that Israel is fearmongering about the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
On Wednesday reports emerged that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found Iran is making small amounts of uranium metal at Isfahan, which could be used in a core of a nuclear weapon. This is yet another violation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran deal, which was supposed to stop Iran making this type of metal until 2030.
Like many things, understanding the reports requires a bit of healthy skepticism blended with expertise and also taking time to understand that what one is being presented with is not a simple zero-sum issue. Both could be true: Iran is years away from a nuclear weapon and also could have enough material to make a weapon within weeks or months. Think of nuclear material like bricks for a building. You can produce enough bricks to build a building, but if you don’t actually start building then you never have a building in front of you. So you could be “weeks away” from enough bricks, but still years away from actually finishing the building.
Let’s look at what we are actually talking about. Blinken is discussing the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. As he noted on January 31, previous estimates have said Iran is months away from having enough of this material. Iran has broken parts of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran Deal, that put limits on its enrichment and stockpiles of uranium. Over the last years Iran has systematically said it is enriching more material at a higher percent. Recent reports said it was enriching uranium up to twenty percent, more than the 3.5 percent it is supposed to. It would need to reach upwards of 90 percent to get the material to nuclear grade.
The IDF assessment reported this week presents a more optimistic picture about timelines. Iran might choose to move towards a nuclear device, but this would take time. There is lack of clarity on the mixed messaging. Israel Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said in late January that a return to the Iran deal was wrong. This also appeared to threaten action against Iran if it moves forward toward a nuclear weapon. Iran responded with its own threats. Then Yediot reported on January 31 that the Mossad opposed the IDF’s position on a new nuclear deal. Add in the latest story that Military Intelligence thinks that if Iran can be prevented from reaching the 90 percent enrichment level, then that would be a feasible way to prevent Iran getting a bomb, and the confusion is understandable.
This confusion leads to headlines mocking Israel and US assessments The Atlantic claimed Iran has been two years away from a nuclear weapon for three decades. In July 2020 the New York Times reported that Iran’s nuclear program had been set back months. Back in 2009 a report looked at the confusion about Iran’s nuclear material. Iran had been supposedly hiding enriched uranium at the time. Reports said Iran had enough uranium for a bomb. What was this material? Estimated inventory of low-enriched uranium had jumped at the time to a newly estimated 209 additional kilograms. This was uranium hexflouride (UF6) which is actually 68% uranium, a report noted. “Enriched uranium is produced by feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges to separate out the most suitable isotope for nuclear fission, called U-235,” BBC explained in January 2020. The report at the Federation of American Scientists in 2009 also noted that “Iranians are at least months away from getting significant quantities of highly enriched uranium.” Basically the goal is to put the UF6 into centrifuges to enrich it by concentrating the U-235.
Why does this matter. The 2009 article noted that Iranians may have been “novices at the centrifuge business,” walking the reader through the fact that containers used for UF6 can hold up to 2.5 tons of UF6 which is solid at room temperature.” It is stored by pumping the gas from the centrifuges into a cylinder, where the UF6 condenses into a white solid.” Now a bit of math is involved. The concept of “breakout” where Iran rushes to enrich uranium to get enough for a bomb, is often where the time limits are discussed. Weeks or months.
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The FAS article cautions us to understand a bit about natural uranium and its two isotopes. Natural uranium is 99.3% U-238 and 0.7% U-235. To get bomb material you need uranium that is 90% U-235. At the time the author, Ivan Oerlich claimed “the Iranians had fed 9956 kg of natural UF6 into their machines. Natural uranium is 0.71 percent U-235 so 9956 kg of UF6 contains 47.6 kg of U-235. During this time, the Iranians produced 839 kg of 3.5 percent LEU UF6.” In short: “Their uranium enrichment program makes no economic sense. It could be consistent with a nuclear power fuel program but it is also consistent with a nuclear weapons program.”
According to reports in January the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that Iran was producing 500 grams of 20% enriched uranium every day. Back in November 2002 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium had reached 2,442.9kg. It had 2,105kg in September 2020. That was enriched at less than 4.5%. Back in 2013 the AP reported that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium had reached 7,000kg at up to 20 percent enrichment.
All of these data points and factoids add up to something. They don’t add up to a bomb. The add up to a very sophisticated country that seeks to play a nuclear game with the West and the world, one usually involving blackmail. They hold up the nuclear enrichment and basically say “pay us to stop this.” Iran’s nuclear program is also extensive and widespread. At Natanz it is estimated to have some 19,000 gas centrifuges which are fed with uranium hexafluoride. It is adding more and has space for some 50,000. Under the deal Iran was allowed to have 5,000 IR-1 centrifuges. Iran also has centrifuges at Fordow, once a secret facility that was discovered in 2009. In January Iran indicated it was enriching at Fordow with up to 20% enrichment, above the 3.67% allowed under the deal. Under the deal Iran was supposed to reduce the 19,000 installed centrifuges to 6,104. It would 5,060 of those at Natanz and the 1,000 at Fordow would be dormant. Back in November 2020 Iran began to feed UF6 into a cascade of 174 IR-2 advanced centrifuges. In November 2019 Iran also said it had some 60 IR-6 centrifuges.
The above details are what is known about the Iranian nuclear enrichment project. At the same time Iran has been expanding its ballistic missile program, sometimes in discussions with North Korean experts. Iran has numerous types of missiles, many of which have origins in either Chinese, North Korean or Russian designs. Iran uses both solid and liquid fuel and it has recently launched a military satellite and a satellite-carrying rocket. Some of these are multi-stage. Could a nuclear warhead be put on the new Zuljanah rocket? Possibly. Iran has demonstrated that its Qiam missile and Fateh 313, Sejjil and Zolfaghar and Fateh 110 are all increasing in precision and accuracy. The Arms Control Association noted in 2011 that “for those seeking to prevent or dissuade Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, the most important question is how much progress the exercises demonstrate toward Iran developing and deploying the missiles, which would carry nuclear warheads. Realistically, medium-term delivery boils down to two existing systems: the liquid fuel, single stage Ghadr 1 MRBM, an advanced derivative of the Shahab 3, and the solid fuel Sejjil 2 MRBM, a two-stage system with sufficient range to target Israel from launch sites throughout Iran, but not yet operational. Neither missile was flown during ‘Great Prophet 6’ [drill].” More recent firings showed these missiles reaching ranges of 1,800km during recent Great Prophet drills dubbed number 15.
Given all this information, about the rate of enrichment, the amount being enriched and the size and precision of Iran’s missiles, it is clear that eventually Iran could reach the stage of having a nuclear weapon and a delivery system for it. However, many things would have to happen for that to materialize. It is worth looking to history to see just how complex making a workable nuclear weapon is. The US Manhattan Project that developed a nuclear weapon, took years and more than 100,000 people and enormous cost to get to the final product. In the end the bomb had to be transported by aircraft. The US used uranium-235 in its “Little Boy” bomb.
But the US program is instructive. The US attempted to use centrifuges and uranium hexafluoride in 1941 but initially abandoned the massive process. The US had also predicted the process would require 50,000 centrifuges to produce one kilogram of uranium a day. Another process was able to produce a few hundred grams of U-235 enriched to 15 percent by 1944. It wasn’t until the spring of 1945 that uranium enriched to more than 85% was ready for the bomb. At the same time a small amount of plutonium nitrate, less than 100 grams, was also initially created through reactors.
Pakistan’s nuclear program took years to enrich uranium. It knew it needed dozens of kilograms of 90 percent enriched uranium-235. Like North Korea, it had sought to produce plutonium, it would have needed less, but had a more complex process. It had to put the uranium hexafluoride into centrifuges for enrichment to get to the final process and produce uranium metal. While Pakistan had enough material for weapons grade uranium, according to reports by 1978, it took until 1988 to have the ability to make a nuclear weapon device.
What about Iran’s possible route to plutonium for bombs? A paper by Ephraim Asculai notes that Iran was working on its IR-40 heavy water natural uranium reactor at Arak in the past and that the “potential for using plutonium in the core of a nuclear explosive device is serious.”
A reading of the relevant details and comparisons with other nuclear programs points to a serious hurdle for Iran. While it has an extensive network of nuclear sites, from its Bushehr power plant to its enrichment site at Fordow, the Nuclear Technology Center of Isfahan with its small nuclear research reactors, and its Arak heavy water site, the extent of all the projects and investments makes Iran’s goals both opaque and its progress sometimes hard to measure. In the end of the day it needs to stockpile a lot of highly enriched uranium or produce plutonium and then it will need to go through the complex process of making a nuclear devise. Only then, with testing, would it be able to then put the device on a missile. Iran has friends in North Korean who know how to do that and it has certainly studied the Pakistani program. However, this complexity leads to the misunderstandings behind what Iran has in terms of “material” compared to how many years away it is from a real nuclear weapon.