Today's nuclear news

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Focus on Iran intensifies

The report released 2010/02/18 by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran has caused a stir in the media with articles in the New York Times, Washington Post and other papers of record.

The highly anticipated report of the new IAEA director general, Yukiya Amano who took office December 1, 2009 indicates that he'll be taking a hard-line on Iran. This is a strong contrast to the previous IAEA director, Mohamed ElBaradei the Nobel peace prize winner who presided over the agency for twelve years. ElBaradei was viewed unfavorably by the U.S. government, in general. Amano is viewed in a much more positive light, as the reports today in the NYT, WP, and others indicate.

Enough personnel background -- let's get to the nuclear issues. Incidentally, the purpose of this blog is, generally, to assess claims made in the press and by government and other officials regarding nuclear issues: weapons, energy, waste isolation, etc. And whether these claims are true and of possible concern. We take as tenet the observation that nuclear weapons are, from the perspective of science, a weapon without an application. And the observation that politics, at least in these United States of America, is the expression of aggregated perception -- that is, basically, the opposite of science. (I'll take care to develop these two points as the blog evolves.)

Focusing on the NYT article by D. Sanger and W. Broad, the first point of scientific note is the fact that the IAEA report confirms that the Iranians have enriched "small quantities" of uranium to 20%. Of equal import is the observation by Sanger/Broad that the report "
makes no assessment of how close it might be to producing a nuclear weapon."

By way of background, let's tackle the question of "enrichment" first. In summary, enrichment is the process of taking uranium the way it's found in nature and processing it into a more pure form. Uranium is a naturally occurring element, found in rock deposits. The concentration of uranium in the ground is tiny so isolating this element takes a lot of dirt and rock and work. The typical way of mining it is open-pit (devastating the natural environment) and the three countries which are the world's largest producers are Canada, Australia, and Kazakhstan. The total world output of uranium is about 100 million pounds per year.

When uranium ore comes out of the ground the uranium is bound up with oxygen (as U3O8, "triuranium octoxide" an "oxide of uranium") and is released by chemical leaching. The resulting powder is brown or black (not yellow, usually) -- this is the "yellowcake" of note in the recent story of Joe Wilson's trip to Nigeria at the behest of the Bush Administration.

Uranium oxide still needs to be processed further to yield more pure forms of the metallic element, 235U the only form which is usable for generating power or making bombs. The reason for this is explained by quantum mechanics and we'll have occasion later to talk about it. The difficulty in isolating or "enriching" the 235U is the same difficulty we had in getting the yellowcake out of the ore that came out of the ground -- scarcity. When we have the yellowcake, the uranium in this powder comes in two varieties. The variety we want, the 235U, constitutes only about 1% of the total amount of uranium. And this uranium is bound up in the molecule U3O8.

The way that the uranium is purified or enriched is a complicated chemical and mechanical separation process which typically uses a large number of large centrifuges. By 'large number' we mean warehouse-sized areas which cover acres. In other words, enrichment facilities are not easy to hide. We'll discuss the details of enrichment in a later entry. (Promises, promises!)

Enriched uranium is classified according to its purity. There are several classes of grading but, basically, there's "low-enriched" and "highly enriched" grades. Low-enriched is less than 20%, sometimes considerably less. Highly enriched is above 20%.

Weapons need 85% and higher enrichment -- a very pure, metallic form of something that started as being bound up in dirt and rocks. The low-enriched form, typically below 20%, what the Iranians have, is only good for generating power.

Returning to the observations made by Sanger/Broad in their NYT article, we see that it's likely that they correctly assess the amount and purity of the uranium that the Iranians possess since these figures square with several sources -- the IAEA, the CIA, and other western government intelligence estimates.

A little more interesting, perhaps, is their observation that the report doesn't say how far the Iranians are in their weapons development program. The short answer is: "many years" -- at minimum, 5 years. At most, 10. (These figures assume that the Iranians would expend huge amounts of capital developing the large facilities we know they don't now have.) It's interesting that the report "makes no assessment." This is a choice, of course, on the part of Amano's IAEA.

My suspicion is that giving the realistic estimate (more than my 5-10 years) takes the punch out of this report. It suggests that we might anticipate a lack of forthright and honest dealing on the part of the new Director.