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Monday, January 16, 2012

Iran Closing in on Nukes

Timothy Birdnow

When the United States dropped the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were dropping the last bombs they had available; the supply of nuclear material was exhausted. Fortunately, the American government had been quite closed-mouthed about the whole matter, and the Soviets believed we had more weapons than we actually did; in the critical time between the dropping of those bombs and our production of more of them, the Russians hesitated to act. The Soviet Union had the entire Red Army poised on the doorstep of Europe, and they could have invaded at any time. They were stopped out of fear of America's horrible super weapon. For a time that weapon did not exist, but they didn't know that.

What is the lesson here? If a nation has a nuclear program, and has the time to work at it, then they should wait to test until they have enough fissile material to build several bombs, enough to built test weapons and still have some reserve. The test is but a formal declaration of their abilities.

I have little doubt Iran has a nuclear weapon.

John Bolton thinks so, too. Bolton, speaking with Aaron Klein, argues that Iran is much closer to having a weapon than the one year estimate by the U.N. inspectors.

According to Bolton:

"Continued Bolton: “They’ve got, by publicly available information from the International Atomic Energy Agency, enough low-enriched uranium that if enriched up to weapons grade would be enough for four weapons.”

“So they’ve got more work to do, but they are already well on their way,”

End excerpt.

Completing enrichment is not that difficult - if you have the means of enriching in the first place. And to have enough for four weapons means you can have your yellowcake and eat it, too. Testing really only requires one weapon (if successful) and then they will still have three to play with and enjoy.

But, I hear people say, North Korea tried to test a bomb and the silly thing just fizzled. True. But that is in the nature of the type of device involved. North Korean nukes are not uranium devices but are plutonium based. Plutonium is much more difficult to work with. First off, it is literally the most toxic substance imaginable, and for the technical people to avoid poisoning themselves is a challenge in itself. But then, it is, like nitroglycerine is in conventional explosives, too atomically active for easy handling. Plutonium is largely an artificial element (largely but not entirely; it can sometimes be found in the Earth's crust, albeit quite rarely) made inside a nuclear reactor. The nucleus of plutonium contains 94 protons in the nucleus, but it contains 150 neutrons. It's what is called a transuranium element, because the biggest atom that remains stable is uranium (neptonium spontaneously decays in nature, and plutonium isn't a whole lot better.) Uranium 235 is 92 and 143, by comparison. What that means is that plutonium is more atomically unstable, and that means it has a more efficient decay. Translated into layman's terms it goes off easier and the chain reaction has greater speed. Now, this may sound like a boon to a nuclear bomb, but, just like nitroglycerine it goes off too easy, making the reaction proceed prematurely. Remember, nuclear fission works like dominoes, with each atomic decay triggering the next in line. If this proceeds too slowly the reaction fizzles out, if too quickly it dampens, failing to start the chain reaction. (Try starting a charcoal fire with gasoline; you get a big "whoosh" and the coals fail to light.) Nitroglycerine was so unstable it killed the guy who invented it, and was only useful when it was adulterated with cotton or clay.

Plutonium is like that. The reaction is much faster than with uranium, and it tends to "splooge" by not moving all at once, so the energy goes out one point and the big bang you are looking for simply doesn't happen. The easier triggering mechanism for uranium do not work with plutonium. Plutonium must be detonated with an implosion, one that happens at the exact same instant around the entire sphere of material. If one of the detonating charges is even marginally out of phase with the rest the plutonium will just sit there. The energy has to hit at once.

North Korea can't get enriched uranium; it doesn't have the ability to acquire the centrifuges capable of processing their raw uranium ore into weapons-grade material. But the old Soviets helped them build nuclear reactors that could use low-grade uranium, and they assisted them in developing the industry necessary to process that into plutonium. According to FAS:

" North Korea maintains uranium mines with an estimated four million tons of exploitable high-quality uranium ore. Information on the state and quality of their mines is lacking, but it is estimated that the ore contains approximately 0.8% extractable uranium. In the mid-1960s, it established a large-scale atomic energy research complex in Yongbyon and trained specialists from students who had studied in the Soviet Union. Under the cooperation agreement concluded between the USSR and the DPRK, a nuclear research center was constructed near the small town of Yongbyon. In 1965 a Soviet IRT-2M research reactor was assembled for this center. From 1965 through 1973 fuel (fuel elements) enriched to 10 percent was supplied to the DPRK for this reactor.

In the 1970s it focused study on the nuclear fuel cycle including refining, conversion and fabrication. In 1974 Korean specialists independently modernized Soviet IRT-2M research reactor in the same way that other reactors operating in the USSR and other countries had been modernized, bringing its capacity up to 8 megawatts and switching to fuel enriched to 80 percent. Subsequently, the degree of fuel enrichment was reduced. In the same period the DPRK began to build a 5 MWe research reactor, what is called the "second reactor." In 1977 the DPRK concluded an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], allowing the latter to inspect a research reactor which was built with the assistance of the USSR.

The North Korean nuclear weapons program dates back to the 1980s. In the 1980s, focusing on practical uses of nuclear energy and the completion of a nuclear weapon development system, North Korea began to operate facilities for uranium fabrication and conversion. It began construction of a 200 MWe nuclear reactor and nuclear reprocessing facilities in Taechon and Yongbyon, respectively, and conducted high-explosive detonation tests. In 1985 US officials announced for the first time that they had intelligence data proving that a secret nuclear reactor was being built 90 km north of Pyongyang near the small town of Yongbyon. The installation at Yongbyon had been known for eight years from official IAEA reports. In 1985, under international pressure, Pyongyang acceded to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). However, the DPRK refused to sign a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an obligation it had as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."

End excerpt.

So North Korea has the raw materials and the equipment to make plutonium. But a plutonium bomb is much more difficult; a uranium bomb is little more than enriched uranium and a gun that fires a uranium bullet into it.

That was why the U.S. bombed TWO Japanese cities; Fat Man, which was dropped on Hiroshima, was a uranium bomb, while Little Boy was plutonium. We needed to field test both devices.

But it is not 1945, and with computers and modern materials it is much easier to make a mushroom. The Manhattan Project had far less to work with; they didn't even have centrifuges, so had to pick the fissile material out of u238 atom by atom using a magnet. The computer had just been invented, and these were punch-card behemoths capable of bytes per hour. The most capable electronic devices used vacuum tubes.

The Iranians are way ahead of the Manhattan Project. They know it was done, and with technology inferior to what they currently have. Thanks to Pakistan's A.Q. Khan they have a working blueprint for a prototype. Literally, the only thing holding them back is the processing. And Russia has been aiding them, with uranium, with "dual use" equipment, with everything they need to process U235.

They'll test when they have enough material for multiple bombs - then they become untouchable.

Once they have such a weapon they will rule the region. They can nuke an Israeli city and there won't be anything anybody can do about it save Israel. They can theoretically launch an EMP strike on the United States, bringing the entire country to it's knees. They can threaten the Sunni neighbors in the region with atomic destruction. Nobody will dare go into Iran once they have the bomb.

What would have happened had Iran had a bomb during the Iran-Iraq war? It may have saved us the time, money, and trouble of the invasion of Iraq, but a smoldering hole where Baghdad now resides and a radioactive cloud blowing through the Middle East is not an optimal solution. Iran has exported terrorism through the world. Iran is not stable in terms of ambitions or goals. And we will have to become Iran's eternal babysitter, forever pointing nukes at her to keep the crazy Ayatollahs from nuking their enemies.

What about the oil and gas pipeline through Georgia? The Russians invaded Georgia because of the pipeline, because it cut them - and their Iranian allies - out of the circuit. Would Iran simply blow Tbilisi to smithereens? Probably so. Will they nuke Armenia because it is Christian? Who is going to stop them?

And what about, say, American military bases, or aircraft carriers? Would a U.S. President order the deaths of millions of Iranians for a limited strike on the American military with Iranian nukes? The Iranians could theoretically take out an entire battle group in the Arabian Sea with a nuke. Will we retaliate by nuking Tehran? Would American Liberals stand for that?

You know the answer.

And don't forget; America is not the only nation vulnerable to EMP; what is to prevent an EMP attack on, say Saudi Arabia? The U.S. will be impotent to act, because nobody is going to tolerate our use of nuclear weapons on Iran for such an action. Maybe, just maybe if they hit the U.S., but not if they hit an erstwhile ally. And that would disrupt international trade, and the economies of the Western World would grind to a halt...

No. Better we stop them here and now. Unfortunately, we have the most juvenile and sophomoric man to ever occupy the Oval Office in charge, and HE certainly wants no part of any action against his Islamic brothers.

The world is blundering into world war. Failing to address this problem of Iran only makes matters far, far worse.

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