Monday, March 2, 2009

OMG, We're Gonna Die! Or, Maybe Not...

A couple of folks have picked up on this already, so I'll just quote the basics. Yesterday, Jen Dimascio of Politico wrote:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff aren't on the same page regarding Iran's nuclear capabilities.

Iran may have enough nuclear material to make a bomb, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday.

Adm. Michael Mullen, told CNN host John King Iran is close.

“And Iran having a nuclear weapon I've believed for a long time is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world.”

Gates and Mullen disagree on Iran

I don't know where Admiral Mullen gets that idea from. Uranium has three different isotopes: U-234, U-235, and U-238. Only U-235 is radioactive, and thus fissionable. The vast majority of uranium is U-238. Uranium for nuclear reactor fuel, which is what Iran is officially trying to produce, needs to be refined to something like five percent U-235. Nuclear weapons fuel, on the other hand, needs to be something over 90 percent U-235. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is monitoring the fuel that's been produced so far. Its latest report, released just two weeks ago, says that to their knowledge, none has been refined beyond the purity needed for reactor fuel. Physics Today observes:

However, as Chemist Cheryl Rofer points out, at 3.49% , the concentration of Iran's 1010 kg of enriched uranium-235 is still too low to make an atomic bomb and would have to be reprocessed for a number of months to reach the necessary enrichment level for military applications. The uranium enrichment facility would also have to be reconfigured to reach higher concentration levels of U-235.

IAEA Report Leads To Press Confusion Over Iranian Nuclear Program

[links from original]

It appears to me that Mullen is right to the same degree that someone who says that because he has ten acres of forest, he has the materials for a nice, big mansion is right. There’s a lot of bother between those two conditions, particularly if you don’t have the tools and you’re not able to move the wood once you’ve cut it down.

Reactor fuel is a much lower purity than weapons grade uranium. Getting there really is a lot of bother, and they’d have to sneak that fuel past the inspectors somehow.

There is also that little matter of the CIA report that no one wants to mention that says the Iranians gave up their nuclear weapons program five years ago.

I'm not bothered by public differences of opinion from officials in the same department of government. That should be the norm when there is doubt on some issue. But I see no reason to think Mullen is right here. Iran looks to be years away from having a bomb, even assuming they still want one enough to make it.

UPDATE: Changed the wording of how much U-235 is required for weapons-grade uranium. Before, it said "around 95 percent". While this might seem a trivial change, the difference actually meant I was implying that it needs to be almost twice as pure as the physics sites I've looked at say it does.


One Fly said...

Will Obama be smart enough to cypher this out or will the hard liners rule as usual?

Cujo359 said...

Right now, my money's on the hardliners. It's possible Obama will surprise me here, though. It really depends how much he thinks he needs the Israel lobby.

Dana Hunter said...

There are certain elements in our ruling class that would believe that Iran's possession of a Geiger counter would mean they're on the verge of stockpiling a nuclear arsenal. Reality has no meaning for them. Especially since they don't understand science.

At least we have someone in the White House now who isn't driven by the desire to bomb absolutely every country that contains brown people in turbans.

(Today's captcha seems to be an Austin Powers fan. "Shaggleg." Disturbing.)

Cujo359 said...

It's disappointing to think a Navy admiral, particularly the one who is CJCS, would ignore or not understand these facts. I can understand Rush Limbaugh doing this sort of thing, but someone in Mullen's position should know better.