Comments Posted By Eric Wilner
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IRAN: EVERYBODY PLEASE RELAX AND TAKE A DEEP BREATH

Andrew:
The most serious threat to us, and the world, frankly, is their focus on the SOH. [...] Even so, the threat and ability to close the strait, even for a short period, gives them an advantage in dealing with oil dependent countries and the gulf Arab states.
This makes sense to me. It strikes me as a good reason for keeping our Strategic Petroleum Reserve topped up; with a big enough reserve, a temporary interruption in supply would hurt the suppliers more than it would hurt us, which creates some disincentive to such disruptions (though the threat remains effective against any other oil-consuming nations that don't have reserves, and of course against the other suppliers).

I just hope we don’t screw it up. The Iranians are our natural allies, in my opinion, [...]
On this, I agree with you completely. I have friends who have friends and family living there. The Iranian expats I've known have all been (at least) decent people, and from what I know of the indigenous culture (as opposed to the culture of the mullahs), we and they can coexist perfectly well.
If we wind up in an all-out fight with Iran, it will surely be bad for us, and disastrous for the Iranians. I'm really, really hoping that the decent Iranians will somehow gain control of their country before anything drastic happens... and that we don't start a fight unnecessarily.
I'd much rather party with them than fight them.

Comment Posted By Eric Wilner On 16.04.2006 @ 16:31

Andrew:
I think we're converging here.
If they haven't managed to get their act together on things like a graphite production plant, that does call into question their ability to progress on any sort of ambitious production project; graphite should be the easiest part of the whole enterprise.
I just get bothered when people set a lower bound for how long something will take, and it's longer than it took the first time that thing was done.

Stepping back (and taking a deep breath), I have to wonder how much of Iran's visible activities - not just the uranium enrichment, but the military exercises, flying boats, and demolition frogmen video - is meant to be serious, and how much is just for show. And, of course, how much is hidden... or whether what they're hiding is the fact that they don't have anything to hide (as seems to have been largely the case with Saddam).

The whole business of an aggressive regime announcing that it will have nukes soon just seems wonky. A nuke in the hand is a deterrent; a nuke in the near future is a "bomb me" sign. I have to assume that games are being played, and I suspect that I'm not the intended audience.

If they really don't have a well-hidden development program that's doing much better than the open one, then by the time they have deliverable warheads, I expect we'll have the ability to intercept their delivery systems, if we know approximately where and when they'll be launched. Presumably their intelligence service has seen the same press releases I have, so....

So maybe the whole thing is really just about prestige, and the crazy talk about Israel is just posturing? I dunno, and trying to comprehend the thinking of politicians (never mind religious foreign ones) gives me a headache. How much are they serious about? Heck, some of our own Senators have the same problem with Dubya.

Ah, well... it's a weekend for looking for the Easter Wabbit. And ODing on chocolate, and suchlike happy things.
Happy Holiday Indexed to the First Full Moon of Spring, everyone!

Comment Posted By Eric Wilner On 15.04.2006 @ 13:16

Andrew:
I gotta take one last shot here. 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.
This is completely wrong. Separating different elements is an entirely different problem from separating different isotopes of the same element. The former can, in most cases, be readly accomplished by ordinary chemical means. The latter requires trickery to separate atoms which differ in mass, but are chemically (very nearly) identical.
Give me a mixture of, say, silver and indium, and I'll rummage aound in the Rubber Bible and figure out a way to separate them with my Junior Chem-O-Kit. Give me a lump of natural silver and ask me to separate the Ag-107 from the Ag-109, and I'll be stuck, because that needs some sort of isotope separator, which I can't conjure up on short notice.

Now if, as you say, the Iranians are trying to get the Chinese to build them a graphite plant, it seems to indicate that they don't already have a stockpile of graphite ready to start building a clandestine, risky reactor - nor already built into one. Whether or not they have a supply of uranium available, this puts them further back on the curve, and lowers the alarm level considerably.

Comment Posted By Eric Wilner On 14.04.2006 @ 15:04

Andrew:
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.
Yes, you do need a reactor. And, as I pointed out, the Hanford reactor was built in less than a year. If the materials are available, and the risks are considered acceptable, it can be done. The result won't meet international safety standards by a long shot, but it'll make plutonium.
Oh, and you don't need LEU. Natural uranium will do, if you've got a suitable moderator.
You also need an isotope separation plant
Nope. You need a chemical separation plant to extract the plutonium from the uranium and fission products. If you're running the reactor in military plutonium production mode, the result will not require isotope separation to be usable for Fat Man type bombs.

Once again: you're asserting that something is impossible, and I'm pointing out that it's already been done once. It may be difficult, dangerous, and unlikely, but it's clearly not impossible.
Just how unlikely it is depends on the degree and nature of motivation, which comes back to intentions. Are we looking at a resurgent Persian Empire, or at a doomsday cult? Big difference in the risks they'd be willing to take.

Of course, the feasibility of the weapons program depends heavily on the cooperation of Iran's talent pool, which I understand is relatively alienated from the mullahs at present. Overly agressive moves on our part might encourage the talent to cooperate with the leaders... which, from our perspective, would surely be counterproductive.

Comment Posted By Eric Wilner On 14.04.2006 @ 12:22

Andrew:
I was explicitly not assuming that Iran's existing reactors were available for plutonium production! I assumed a supply of refined natural uranium and of a suitable moderator.
If they have minimal expertise in producing and handling plutonium, that's still more than zero. They'd be starting with a lot of publicly-available knowledge that didn't exist in 1943, starting with the fact that plutonium bombs are possible. They've no doubt also acquired a lot of the more obscure knowledge from, e.g., North Korea.
Remember the Hanford timeline: less than a year to build the reactor; another five months to produce enough plutonium for two bombs.
While it's true that we couldn't do it again in such a short time, it's not a safe assumption that a rogue regime would be limited by OSHA rules. If we assume that the mullahs are really planning an apocalyptic confrontation with us, we can hardly count on their putting a high value on the safety of their workers.
Developing a nuke for the first time took a collection of the world's top scientists. Doing it for the tenth time is a job for a team of good engineers and technicians.
Now, I wouldn't expect Iran's team to be turning out sophisticated super-clean silo busters anytime soon, but, given national priority and competent management, plus a few good engineers in the right fields, I maintain that they could have crude but effective Fat Man type bombs in limited production not much more than two years from the go-ahead, and that we shouldn't assume otherwise. Assuming incompetence on the part of one's adversaries is not a safe bet, even it it is usually right.

So, we really have to look hard at their intentions, and at just how good our intelligence capabilities really are. I don't have any inside information on either topic, but suggest that discerning the true intentions behind the public displays of lunacy is the key part of threat assessment. Just what are they really planning to do with nukes, and what are they willing to risk to get them? How much of the lunacy is real, and how much is propaganda for either domestic or foreign consumption?

Thinking of a Far Side cartoon: How nature says, "Do not touch." Proclaiming "We're crazy, and we have nukes" is one thing... "We're crazy, and we're about to have nukes" seems completely off the wall, and I have to wonder what's really going on.

Comment Posted By Eric Wilner On 14.04.2006 @ 08:57

Andrew:
"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."
I didn't say "soon"; I said much sooner than three years. What was the elapsed time from the start of the Manhattan Project to Trinity? Iran has a head start on that, in both knowledge and infrastructure. If they've got several tons of off-the-books natural uranium, a supply of high-purity graphite or heavy water, and a large industrial basement, they're set to start.
And I don't trust either our intelligence agencies or the UN to know what's going on in every place that could hide a subterranian Hanford.
Speaking of Hanford: reactor construction commenced October 1943; operational September 1944; plutonium shipped February 1945. Mushroom cloud at Alamogordo, July 1945. By my calendar, that qualifies as much less than three years.

Now, I agree that we shouldn't be going into a frenzy on the basis of what we're being shown... my points are that (1) there are almost certainly other things going on, out of view (and for which the public activities may be a smokescreen), and (2) any claim that a determined national effort to build a nuke will take more than a couple of years from the word go is contradicted by history.

Comment Posted By Eric Wilner On 13.04.2006 @ 17:02

One thing that seriously bothers me about these time estimates:
We have a reference point for how long it takes to get from commitment to mushroom cloud. Spring 1942 to summer 1945. Just over three years, starting from basically zero.
And that was back when nobody'd done it yet, and it wasn't clear that it was even possible.
Anyone starting a nuclear weapons program now is standing on the shoulders of giants; much useful information is available now that wasn't in 1942. (So is a lot of misinformation, but any reasonably competent development team should be able to cut through that fairly quickly.)
I'm pretty sure the Iranians are way overstating the status of their visible program, but wouldn't bet against their also having a hidden program that's further along.
In any event, their program now is much more advanced than ours was this time in 1942, so insisting that they're three years from having a bomb is nonsensical. If they started up a plutonium-based bomb project now, they could have bombs rolling off the assembly line much sooner than that.

Comment Posted By Eric Wilner On 13.04.2006 @ 10:44


 


 


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