You are quite right about the two types of plants. Isotope separation plants generally refer to uranium enrichment when talking about bomb design, and chemical separation, or reprocessing as it is commonly called, is the means to extract plutonium. Please forgive my sloppy error.
Much of the evidence is contradictory, but there were reports in the late 1990's that China was negotiating with Iran to build a graphite production facility. However, it appears that China pledged to cease cooperation with Iran on nuclear matters except to complete a Zirconium production facility and 4 small research reactors at Isfahan (which are now operational). No graphite production facility has been found to my knowledge. However, the Iranians recently completed a heavy water production plant at Arak, which is located next to a 40MW HW moderated research reactor that is under construction and will probably be completed in 3 or 4 years. Iran supposedly failed to purchase one from the Chinese or Russians, so this is reportedly an indigenous design. So far, they have only submitted preliminary blueprints (with important details missing) to the IAEA, so we don't yet know the details of the design. Once that is complete and fueled, it could reportedly produce enough plutonium for 2-3 bombs per year depending on how often they operated it. The only thing missing at that point is a reprocessing facility. Any reprocessing facility will likely be located at Arak to preclude the long-distance transport of dangerous spent fuel.
So, provided they construct a reprocessing facility, complete the reactor on schedule, and have the equipment and design to make a plutonium device, they could conceivably have their first one in 4-5 years. There isn't much opportunity to move the schedule up because the reactor will require 80-90 tons of heavy water and the plant at Arak can reportedly produce about 16 tons a year.
Anyway, that is enough for a Friday night, have a good weekend.Comment Posted By Andrew On 15.04.2006 @ 00:25
I am done with this argument, you believe what you want. But it begs the question of why the Iranians would get us, then the Germans, then Russians to build their Bushehr reactor over the course of over 25 years when they, as you indicated, could do it in less than three years on their own. Why are they asking the Chinese to build them a reactor-grade graphite plant if they could do it themselves and build your Hanford reactor in less than a year. Why was their program languishing until AQ Khan gave it a technical boost?
I'll just correct one small point - I said, "You also need an isotope separation plant." You said, "Nope. You need a chemical separation plant..." Well, a chemical separation plant IS an isotope separation plant since what you're doing in the plant is separating nuclear isotopes - so they are the same thing, just different terminology.Comment Posted By Andrew On 14.04.2006 @ 13:36
I don't want to be mean, but you really don't know what you're talking about with respect to Iran's plutonium capabilites. You don't simply need a supply of LEU and a moderator, you need a full-blown reactor to produce the quantities of plutonium necessary to make a weapon. A reactor the Iranians don't have. You also need an isotope separation plant - again something the Iranians don't have. Your argument that they could build these by themselves and produce a weapon in less than three years is ludicrious. They can't even build a convential reactor on their own without Russian help. And you didn't even address the issue of doing it covertly, which is what they'd need to do to keep the IAEA and everyone else off their backs.
What you're essentially doing is confusing nuclear science, which is well known and understood, with nuclear engineering, which is the difficult part. Knowing the science behind nuclear technology and knowing how a nuclear bomb or reactor works is much different than actually building one and overcoming the many important technical challenges along the way. Iran has the science part down, but they don't have the engineering expertise or the industrial base to support your claims. That's why they rely heavily on the Russians for their reactor design and construction, and AQ Khan and North Korea for enrichment and other technologies. I'm not assuming incompetence, far from it. I'm talking about capabilities, and the requirements for them to achieve those capabilities. If there is any assumption it is by you and other bloggers who make assumptions based on heresay or ignorance.
"Doing it for the tenth time is a job for a team of good engineers and technicians." Sorry, but that is complete BS. I don't know why this myth about how easy these things are persists. It's like saying it's easy for a bunch of recently-graduated aerospace engineers to build the space shuttle. Even if you have all the necessary detailed plans, the materials, and the proper equipment, there are still signficant challenges.
And just to add some credibility (and I've said this before on this and other sites), my wife is a nuclear engineer who's worked non-proliferation issues for about 13 years. I have been involved in a variety of intelligence disciplines for almost 15 years including ballistic missiles, some wmd, and naval and air force capabilities. My wife is an expert on what is and isn't possible and is intimate with the details of what's necessary to achieve a certain result with respect to nuclear weapons. I've learned from her enough to become a competent layman but she is always there when I have questions.
So we not only have to look at intentions, but also capability. You simply can't assume the capability will be there and only focus on intent, especially in matters of war and peace.
As for intent, if you look at it from the Iranian perspective, it's pretty obvious. First is national prestige. Iran is the heir to the great Persian empires of centuries past, and they view their pursuit of nuclear technology through that lense. Secondly, and probably the primary reason for their desire for weapons, is self protection. Nothing guarantees regime survivability like deployable nuclear weapons. With "hostile" American forces to the east and west of them (and our tough rhetoric), Pakistan and India with nukes, and of course Israel, it's only natural for them to want them as well as a security guarantee and counter to perceived and real threats. Any further intent is speculation. Many have speculated that they will use them as soon as they can deploy them, either directly or through their proxies. This is obviously the greatest concern we have. Hopefully we'll get (or already have) reliable intelligence on their true intent so we're not forced to speculate, which always makes for poor decision making.Comment Posted By Andrew On 14.04.2006 @ 11:49
Eric, you missed my main point entirely, but I should have been more clear. I had assumed you knew the state of Iran's reactors, but perhaps you do not. Currently, the only reactor Iran has capable of creating plutonium is their small 5MW test reactor we (the us) built for them in the 70's. As a research reactor, it can be configured to produce various isotopes. Iran used this to produce a small amount of plutonium and they probably conducted experiments to separate it. There are still many questions about Iran's intentions with respect to plutonium, but what is certain is that they have not produced anywhere near enough to create a bomb and their technical expertise in creating, handling and separating the isotope is still minimal. To create a bomb, they need a source to generate a lot of plutonium. They simply don't have that. The test reactor can produce a few grams for research purposes but not enough for a weapon. Even when the Bushehr reactor gets finished and maybe fueled this year by the Russians, they won't get any plutonium from it. The reactor isn't designed to produce a lot of plutonium (it's not a "breeder" reactor) and the fuel will be under IAEA controls. They do have a heavy water reactor under construction at Arak that could be used for plutonium production once it's built and fueled. They would also need a plutonium separation facility which they currently don't have. Because of all this, there is simply no way for them to covertly build the infrastructure and gain the expertise in under 3 years.
Again, there is no comparison to the manhattan project. We pumped billions of dollars, the best minds in the world, used unsafe designs and technology, and employed over a hundred thousand people to produce a couple of small-yield devices. Just because we did it in the 40's doesn't mean that it's simple and easy for everyone else to do, especially without anyone else knowing it. As an analogy, we developed ICBMs in the early 1960's, as did the Russians. The technology and materials to make an ICBM is much easier to acquire than a nuke, yet few countries have ICBMs. Even Iran and North Korea, which have put significant resources into their ballistic missile programs, have yet to develop what we had 40 years ago. Why? Because the engineering, material science and many other technical aspects are still beyond the capabilities of most other countries in the world. The same is true with nuclear technology.Comment Posted By Andrew On 13.04.2006 @ 22:03
I believe Israel has seen this coming for some time. It's one of the primary reasons they have already deployed an advanced ABM system. I think Israel will have live with Iranian nukes and I think they have come to accept this privately. Israeli military power is not what it once was, and it is not really possible for them to destroy the Iranian program. Flying aircraft to Iran today is a huge problem that isn't easily overcome for starters. The best they could hope for is to delay the Iranian program for perhaps a decade. The consequences of such an attack probably are not worth a 10 year delay for a best-case scenario. That's why I believe they are taking defensive measures and will make it clear to the Iranians that the concept of MAD is alive and well. Some may bring up the threat of a suitcase bomb, but the Iranians will not be able to make one of these for many years. Getting a nuclear truck bomb undetected from Iran to the Israeli border and then inside the country is also unlikely.Comment Posted By Andrew On 13.04.2006 @ 13:29
In my view, the left and the right are equally to blame for pounding the war drums. The left is so hysterically paranoid about Bush's intentions that they believe he will start a war because of his religious convictions, or because he loves war. It reminds me of the right accusing Clinton attacking Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq only to distract everyone from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In both cases, the right and left were way off base. The right is also wrong here, because many are advocating attacking them soon for a variety of unsound reasons, and they haven't thought through or even considered the consequences of such an action. The also have no apparent understanding of Iranian internal politics and society and see Ahmadinejad as all-powerful and representative of the whole Iranian goverment and society.
You can't really compare our program during WWII to what Iran is doing today. Intelligence technology has progressed to the point where a manhanttan-style project could not be covert. That is really the difficulty for the Iranians. Sure, they could greatly speed up their program, but they could not do so secretly. Covert programs always progress more slowly than open ones.
For our first bombs in the 40's, we used electromagnetic isotope separation (emiss), which is extremely innefficient and requires an extraordinary amount of power. The electricity required for our first few bombs came from the Tennessee Power Authority, which was created solely for the manhattan project. At it's peak, it pumped out enough power for all of New York City, and that power was used soley for isotope separation. Most of the information we developed on EMISS was eventually declassified because, at the time, we believed that it was too impractical and expensive to use since more efficient techniques were developed. Unfortunately, we found out after Gulf War I that Iraq took our EMISS data, improved on it, and had an advanced EMISS program we knew nothing about until after the war. Although it's possible the Iranians might have a similiar program, it's probably unlikely simply because we now know what to look for in an EMISS program. EMISS requires large buildings hooked to multiple large power plants. That kind of infrastructure is difficult to hide.
As for plutonium, no, they couldn't have plutonium bombs rolling out soon. Plutonium is only made inside reactors and it is difficult to extract. The Iranians would have to get spent fuel out of a reactor (which is monitored by the IAEA) and process the plutonium out of it. This isn't easy to do and is practically impossible to accomplish without discovery because of safeguards put on reactors and spent fuel. HEU is much easier because it simply requires natural uranium which is much more difficult for us to track.
All that aside, it is certainly possible that Iran has a covert enrichment facility, but from what I've seen there is no evidence to support that contention.Comment Posted By Andrew On 13.04.2006 @ 13:12
It seems pretty obvious that at least two, and probably three, hijackers were injured or killed in the assault. There were probably two hijackers in the cockpit and two just outside. With boxcutters the hijackers in the cabin wouldn't have been able to hold the passengers off for long. In all probability, the hijackers outside the cockpit were overcome and either subdued or killed. Jarrah continued to fly the plane while the third hijacker attempted to keep the cockpit door closed. When it became obvious the assault could not be stopped and the cockpit would be breached, Jarrah began rolling the plane over onto it's back and pulled it into an unrecoverable dive. At this point, the plane was doomed no matter what happened. If the passengers had breached the cockpit earlier, then Jarrah would only have crashed the plane earlier. I don't see any way the passengers could have been successful given the circumstances. They would have to overpower Jarrah before he was able to roll the plane on it's back. Given the three defending hijackers and the tight quarters near the cockpit, I don't see how it could have been possible to get to Jarrah fast enough to stop the rollover.
As an interesting side note, there was some debate in the aviation community in the 90's about putting restrictions on what a pilot could do with a plane like that. Basically, as an effort to reduce pilot error, "governors" were put in place on some aircraft so that a plane would not respond to a command that would put the plane in uncontrolled flight. At the time, pilots fought against it, saying that in an emergency situation, a pilot may be forced to take the plane past control limits in order to save it.
I haven't heard anything about it since, but I wonder how things might be different if the plane itself had not allowed Jarrah to perform the roll in the first place. Although I think Airplane security is a lot better now, and I think the liklihood of a 9/11 style takeover is very remote, this kind of technology might be another line in the defense of aircraft hijacking.Comment Posted By Andrew On 12.04.2006 @ 13:31
I don't see what the big deal is. Of course we have plans to attack Iran. The military's job is to be ready for action if the President says so. In order to do so, we pre-plan many aspects in anticipation of possible combat. I can tell you we've had many different war-plans for Iran since 1979. This is not new, or surprising, or shocking. It's one of the military's jobs.
On the other side, does anyone think the Iranians don't have plans for attacking US carriers in the Arabian Gulf, or shutting the straits of Hormuz, or militarily reclaiming disputed Islands in the Gulf, or any number of other scenarios. Every country in the world does this. The only difference here is that some of the details of the planning were leaked. And even that doesn't mean much, because final plans are always changed from preliminary planning to account for the current strategic, tactical and political situation.
To me, as one in the service who has done some of this kind of planning in the past, this is really much ado about nothing.Comment Posted By Andrew On 10.04.2006 @ 18:42
I almost forgot your other points. You need to look at things from the Iranian perspective:
- Their two mortal enemies have nukes (Us and the Israelis)
- One state that borders them has nukes (Pakistan)
- Their mortal enemy, the US, now has signifcant military forces and has invaded two strategic countries on its borders, and is publically considering military action against them.
- Because of geography and their lack of conventional capabilities, they know they could not defend against a conventional attack from the US.
- They have few real friends in the region - the Arab countries are, at best, distrustful of them because they are both Persian and Shiite. Iranian promotion of "Islamic revolution" is certainly unpopular among the Arab monarchs. Relations with Sunni-dominated Pakistan have only recently started to improve from decades of hostility.
Given these realities, it's pretty easy to see why they would want a nuclear capability. You say you don't care about Iran's paranoia or what it views as its security needs - well you should if you want to understand the whole picture. Iran internal politics is much more complex than most realize.
You're right, I certainly did not mean to make any comparisons to Hitler or the Nazi's, for there is little to compare. I fail to see any similarities to 1930's Germany and europe beyond the rhetoric.Comment Posted By Andrew On 5.04.2006 @ 22:55
I guess I'm lucky that my wife is a nuclear engineer who has worked non-proliferation issues for the government for many years, and so I can speak with some authority on this matter. Creating a "suitcase" bomb is several orders of magnitude more difficult than simply creating a bomb. The enigneering required is very difficult and requires a level of expertise, precision, and experience in working with and building nuclear weapons the Iranians simply don't, and won't, have for some time. Even if they had a valid suitcase bomb design (let's assume the Russians gave them one) and the tools and knowledge necessary to build it, that is still no guarantee it will work, or work as designed. We are lucky here in the US in that we can use our considerable bomb experience, expertise and the most advanced computers on the planet to virtually test our bombs. Nations with developing programs don't have that advantage, and without testing, extremely advanced designs are prone to a high failure rate. And testing is impossible if you want to keep your program covert. The Iranians jumping ahead to such an advanced device would be similar to them jumping ahead in their ballistic missile program to ICBM's with MIRVs. It's simply not as easy as it appears.
A nuclear truck-bomb is much more feasable option, but obviously isn't as tactically flexible as a "suitcase" design.
As for a radiological device, it's very unlikely any RDD would kill anywhere close to several hundred thousand people minimum. Actually, your first statement is correct - it would probably kill several hundred people minimum. The upper limit of deaths would depend on a lot of factors, including uncontrollable ones such as weather. It would also make a big difference if you included things like increased cancer deaths years down the line in your figures. It's impossible to predict the precise number of deaths, but it's safe to say that "several hundred thousand minimum" isn't remotely close to the truth. Even the "worst case" scenario of a large RDD in Manhattan at noon would probably only kill 2-3 thousand people. The real effect of an RDD weapon, beyond the pyschological, is the disruption caused by the contaminated environment. If a bomb were detonated in Manhattan, efficiently particulated and dispersed into the air, and had favorable weather and winds that blew the material the length of the island, then large swaths of that city would become unsuitable for long-term habitation until it was cleaned up. The expense from that disruption and clean-up would be enormous, not to mention the displacement of millions of people. That is the real power of an RDD, not mass casualties.
And just to think logically for a minute - if a suitcase size RDD (or any RDD) would kill several hundred thousand people MINIMUM, then why develop conventional nukes at all since they are so much harder to make? Several hundred thousand is more deaths than a small conventional nuke would probably cause. And considering that the fire in the Chernobyl reactor pumped hundreds of pounds of RDD material into the atmosphere, you'd think we would have seen millions of deaths from that, especially considering the plume crossed through half of Europe and eventually circled the globe.Comment Posted By Andrew On 5.04.2006 @ 22:14