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November 20, 2004

Uranium-Enrichment Myths Busted

by Gordon Prather

To get your support for the application of the Bush Doctrine to Iraq last year, the neo-crazies claimed to have slam-dunk intelligence that Saddam had secretly reconstituted his uranium-enrichment program and would, therefore, soon have nukes to give to terrorists.

But Mohamed ElBaradei – Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – had told the UN Security Council that "after three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq."

To get your support for the application of the Bush Doctrine to Iran next year, the neo-crazies are now claiming to have slam-dunk intelligence that the mullahs have secretly been enriching uranium for years and, therefore, will soon have nukes to give to terrorists.

Well, Iran will soon have a uranium-enrichment capability.

But IAEA experts have just spent two years developing a comprehensive picture of Iran's nuclear and nuclear-related activities, including all nuclear-related imports. They have found no evidence that Iran has yet enriched uranium. Much less did they find any evidence that Iran has nukes or a nuke development program.

Do the neo-crazies and their media sycophants really believe that having a uranium-enrichment capability is tantamount to having nukes? And if so, where did they ever get such a crazy idea?

Currently, the world's leader in gas-centrifuge development and the world's largest single provider of enriched-uranium is the Urenco Group, a private-sector consortium with plants in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

The Urenco Enrichment Company produces and markets enriched uranium for use in the manufacture of fuel for nuclear power plants, while the Enrichment Technology Company develops and deploys gas centrifuges.

The current generation of Urenco centrifuges comprise an ultra-light, thin-walled tube made from specialty metals and composite materials, containing a cylindrical rotor – also made from composite materials – which spins at an incredibly high velocity in a vacuum, on almost frictionless (magnetic) bearings.

In order to obtain the desired enrichment of the U-235 isotope, it is necessary to connect a large number of centrifuges together in series and in parallel. This arrangement of centrifuges is known as a cascade.

Passing through the cascade, U-238 isotopic atoms in the uranium hexafluoride gas are progressively removed, resulting in a gradual "enrichment" of the U-235 isotope.

Nuclear power plant fuel is typically 3 to 5 percent U-235. Weapons-grade HEU is typically 90 percent U-235 or greater.

In first-generation centrifuges, the rotors were made of aluminum and the bearings were not frictionless. Hence they were relatively low-efficiency machines – incapable of operating at high velocities – which translates into many more centrifuges being required in the cascade. Thousands of them.

Last year, the Iranians invited ElBaradei to inspect a gas-centrifuge cascade they were constructing. The facility – once operation begins – will be subject to an IAEA Safeguards Agreement, which would prohibit the production of weapons-grade HEU.

According to the IAEA, the Iranian centrifuges appear to be based upon first-generation Urenco designs.

That figures. A Pakistani metallurgist named A.Q. Kahn stole blueprints for a first generation centrifuge from Urenco in 1975, and by the late 1980s, Khan was publicly offering uranium-enrichment services – in competition to Urenco – using "indigenously" designed and produced gas-centrifuges.

Now, as best the IAEA can determine, Urenco doesn't have nukes, even though there are probably lots of scientists and engineers employed by Urenco who could make a gun-type nuke if you gave them two 75-pound pieces of weapons-grade HEU to bang together.

Khan probably also had similarly capable scientists and engineers.

But, in 1998, Pakistan tested several nukes, each far more sophisticated than the gun-type nuke we dropped on Hiroshima. Even more sophisticated than the implosion-type nuke we dropped on Nagasaki.

You see, the Pakistani nukes were apparently "boosted" with tritium – which is the secret of making them small and lightweight.

So, whether it's Urenco or Pakistan or Iran, having a uranium-enrichment capability is not tantamount to having nukes. It's certainly not tantamount to having nukes that are small enough to be delivered by ballistic missiles.

If the Iranians wanted to design and engineer a missile-deliverable nuke, they'd need the equivalent of Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory.

If the Iranians wanted weapons-grade enriched uranium for their engineered design, they'd have to get it from A.Q. Khan. Unlike Iran's, Khan's uranium-enrichment facilities are not subject to the IAEA-NPT regime.

Meanwhile, some media type ought to visit Urenco and put to rest the neo-crazy idea that having a uranium-enrichment capability is tantamount to having nukes.

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Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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