Monday, August 07, 2006

Is Iran working on nuclear weapons?

The answer is yes. But Iran's nuclear weapons program has nothing to do with the light-water reactor under construction by the Russians, or the uranium enrichment plant which they're building. Instead, the center of their nuclear weapons program is the heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak.

It is hard to enrich uranium to weapons-strength. U-235 (the stuff that goes boom) and U-238 (which it is mixed with in nature) are chemically identical, thus the only way to separate them is mechanically, by taking advantage of the fact that U-238 is very slightly heavier than U-235. This is hard, because less than 1% of raw uranium ore is U-235, but you need 85%+ to make a reasonable bomb, whereas you only need to enrich to roughly 3% to power a light-water reactor. It took 10% of the GDP of the United States to manage to enrich enough uranium for one single bomb (the one that took out Hiroshima). It is easy, on the other hand, to irradiate U-238 (natural uranium) enough in a heavy water reactor to produce Pu-239 via neutron bombardment, and it is child's play to chemically separate Pu-239 from U-238 (since they are chemically different elements, unlike U-235 and U-238). You don't even need to start with enriched uranium to fuel the reactor, since a heavy water plant will operate on natural (unenriched) uranium.

So if this is where the Iranian nuclear weapons plant is, why, then, is the Bush Administration all upset about a light-water plant that isn't useful for making nuclear weapons? One answer might be that the Bush Administration is populated by a bunch of cretins and fools who wouldn't know a light water plant from a heavy water plant from a chia plant. The other thing, I suppose, is that the light-water plant is being built by the Russians, and the Bush Administration still has a Cold War mindset that anything the Russians do must, by definition, be evil. Or maybe they just want an excuse, any excuse, to go after Iran, no matter how stupid their excuse... you never know with this bunch, after all.

-- Badtux the Nuclear Science Penguin


  1. I don't know much about chemistry and physics. The last time I looked at this stuff was like 20 years ago or something. So I can't say much of anything meaningful about that. I can say, however, that I don't quite buy into the whole "Cold War is over" sentiment. Since Bush administration announced their preemptive war strategy and started to work towards abandoning of ABM treaties and such, Russia has doubled its military spending and we are pretty much back on a collision course. Only this time it is done with smiles and handshakes. Well, kind of...

  2. Given what the Iranians have accomplished so far it will be the 22nd century before they get enough U-238 to be dangerous.

    Plutonium is a totally different matter. Nasty stuff, which is why Pakistan is shifting to it and dumping their U-238 weapons.

    You can't have a proper Nuclear Winter class arsenal without plutonium.

  3. Err, Bryan, U-238 isn't dangerous. U-235 is dangerous. You build bombs with U-235, not with U-238. And agreed, thus far Iran has managed to enrich approximately a pound of uranium ore to 3% U-235/97% U-238 -- useless for making bombs, useful only for fuel for a reactor. Enriching enough uranium to 85% U235/15% U-238 as would be needed for a reasonable bomb would take a couple hundred years at this rate.

    But a small 40kw heavy water reactor like the one they're building apparently with Pakistani help (at least, the plant layout looks identical to Pakistan's) can make enough Pu-239 (from neutron bombardment of the U-238) for four or five bombs per year. I have no idea why the U.S. continues to fuss about the enrichment program, when the heavy water reactor is far more deadly.

    As for Russia doubling its defense budget, yeah, they doubled it from 5 rubles to 10 rubles. Big whoop. Pretty much any additional money spent on their military would have been a significant increase. It doesn't mean much. Their navy has basically rusted in place at the piers, their ICBM's are unlikely to be launchable if they ever decided to try, their air force has maybe 50 modern jet fighters and the rest are the same old antiques they've had for the past 30 years. They have no ability to project force outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union, and realistically speaking will have no such ability for the foreseeable future. While I harbor no delusions about Russia's intentions, there is a significant difference between intentions and capabilities. Right now, their capabilities are so miniscule that they can barely retain control over one rogue province (Chechnya), and managed to do that only via the genocide of probably 20% of Chechnya's popuolation. Reality is that it will be many, many years before Russia is a threat. Same goes for China, which has similar issues with their own military -- a reliance upon obsolete technology that is useful only for defense purposes, with no ability to project power beyond their borders.


  4. This is all off topic of course, but... Russians have a bit different approach to military technology than what people used to here in US and VERY different from Hollywood caricature of everything Russian. There are definitely many financial issues and a lot of the equipment is older, but I would not go as far as to say that it poses no threat. Beside that, any potential US-Russian conflict will not be fought with "modern jets" you know... Nevertheless, here is a couple of links you might want to look at:

    Air Force

    It's not a US military, with a budget of a small planet, but it still has enough nukes to blow us all to pieces.

  5. Maybe the reason the administration isn't concerned about a heavy water reactor is that they know that water isn't a threat, since there's not much chance that the Iranians can drown anybody with it. Enrichment is a dirty word, and they have to be prevented from doing that, but a water reactor has to be safe (even a heavy water reactor), since water isn't dangerous. Right? Right?

    Oh, by the way, is Canada still the world's leading supplier of heavy water? It's all a plot by those Canadians to take over the world! ;-)


  6. That's what I get for posting after eating. Mea culpa for not reading after I type, although shaped into a DU round for the 30mm cannon on the A-10, U-238 can still be nasty.

    My last chemistry course was in 1963, so I'm pleading fogeyism.

  7. Great post Bad Tux! That actually learned me something. ;-)

    But slightly of topic. You mentioned that the Bush administration would not know enough about Nuclear Science to know the differences between certain aspects.

    Last night on Hardball it was stated, I don't remember the name of the person, that George Bush, when told about the diffences between the Sunni and Sh'hitte asked, "I thought they were all muslim."

  8. Fine snark, Dave :-).

    Yes, Canada is not only the world's foremost supplier of heavy water, but also the world's foremost supplier of heavy water reactors suitable for nuclear weapons use (their CANDU design). The plutonium for Britain's first nuclear bomb came from Canadian reactors, and all of Britain's current plutonium stocks are from reprocessed CANDU fuel rods. Actually, that plutonium officially belongs to Canada, and Canada could build a dozen or so nuclear weapons within six months of deciding to do so, but the Canucks have apparently decided that having nuclear weapons with no way to deliver them (the Canadian Air Force has what, five planes? :-) is rather silly and the political downsides rather drastic.

    As for the Russian Air Force, currently their only really operational long-range bomber is the turboprop Bear, circa 1950 technology, which would be a sitting duck in any shooting war against any opponent with an air defense. Their jet bomber force is largely grounded due to lack of spare parts, they are spending most of their limited funding on spare parts and upgrades of tactical aircraft and jet fighters to make them more survivable in a modern environment, as well as spending a lot of money on anti-tank missiles to try to come up with something that'll take out a M1 consistently (their current effort was apparently used to take out a single M1A1 in Iraq, but proved to be rather unweildy and difficult to use in an actual combat environment, thus the funding for coming up with a better anti-tank missile). Their current military spending appears to be almost 100% defensive -- no new offensive weapons are envisioned for quite some time. As for their strategic missile forces, if those are in the same state of disrepair as their strategic bombing forces, I'd be more concerned with them blowing up in their silos than with them hitting an American city...

    In short, while Russia might be a long-term threat, in the short term the virtual dissolution of their armed forces in the late 1990's means that they are just now rebuilding their defensive capabilities, and offensive capabilities will take some time longer to rebuild. I would not count Russia as a "friendly" country by any means -- Putin does what's right for Russia, period -- but their threat to the United States is indirect via provision of defensive weapons to groups that are bleeding U.S. power in various overseas U.S. wars, rather than directly via armed action.

    PS -- the Saggers being used by Hizbullah are almost 100% certain to be provided by Iran, which has been manufacturing them since the early 1990's. The Sagger was an early 1960's design that has been out of production in Russia since the 1980's, and Iran has upgraded their own copy of the Sagger design with a new double-shaped-charge warhead which has apparently proven surprisingly effective against Israel's Merkava tanks...


  9. You speak of all those possible explanation for Our Preznit's obsession with Iranian enrichment as if they were mutually exclusive:

    a) They're morons
    b) They're paranoid about the Russkies
    c) They want any excuse to bomb Iran

    Why can't they all be true? I posit that they are.

  10. Oh, be careful. You've let those peaceful Canadians fool you. They have 98 CF-18 Hornet planes [1], along with quite a few more transport and patrol planes, as well as a rather large fleet of helicopters:

    As my signifant other's dad (who's Canadian) is fond of pointing out, while the American Air Force is out bombing Iraqis back into the stone age, the Canadian Air Force gets to fly combat air patrols over American cities.

    [1] Yikes! Did I just blow my cover? Will the Canadians have to eliminate me now?

    As for the Saggers and the Israeli tanks, wasn't it the Israelis that came up with "reactive armour" [2]? I have to wonder what kind of reaction the guy who came up with that idea received. "You want us to bolt explosives on the outside of our tanks?!?"

    [2] See? I really am a deep cover agent. I even use Canadian spellings. ;-)


  11. Yeppers, the Israelis came up with reactive armor, then the Russians came up with tandem HEAT warheads to defeat reactive armor, then Iran retrofitted the tandem warheads to their Saggers (which they have been producing natively since the early 90's). Which came as a nasty surprise to the Israelis when they sent a couple of Merkavas after their kidnapped servicemen... one of the Merkavas got killed, the other Merkava only barely made it back to Israeli soil.


  12. The Iranians already have nuclear weapons. They were looted from Iraqi stockpiles while Murkan troops guarded the Oil Ministry. Same for all the biochemical weapons, trebuchets, and potato launchers.

  13. Hmm, don't forget the dead anthrax-riddled cow for the trebuchet. Clear biological warfare. Why, General Monty Python even said so himself!

    -- Badtux the Snarky Penguin

  14. I have no idea why the U.S. continues to fuss about the enrichment program, when the heavy water reactor is far more deadly.

    1. They really just want to bomb Iran into the stone age, and then drill thru glass... the enrichment program is just an excuse.

    2. If they try to explain plutonium to the red state citizens, W will mispronounce it, Cheney will get him all confused, and noone will know what he's talking about.

    As it is, he regularly demonizes parts of cells(nucular war), and yet refuses to allow or fund any research on them.


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