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December 11, 2004

Virtual Nukes


by Gordon Prather

David Sanger's recent interview with Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has resulted in a New York Times article about "virtual nukes."

What is a "virtual" nuke?

Well, apparently, it's a nuke that doesn't yet exist, but conceivably could, soon.

Sanger claims that if a state can convince the world that it quickly "could screw together a workable, deliverable nuclear weapon" then a potential invader will be as deterred from invading as if that state already had nukes.

Quoth Sanger, "In an age when centrifuge components and bomb designs are on the black market, and when technology has made bomb-building much less expensive and time-consuming, it doesn't take much for the world to take you seriously."

Sanger must have gotten this hopelessly naïve idea from the neocons.

The neocons would have you believe that having a nuclear power plant – even one whose operation is subject to IAEA Safeguards, like Iran's – is tantamount to having a plutonium-239 implosion nuke.

Or that having a uranium-enrichment facility – even one whose operation is subject to IAEA Safeguards, like Iran's – is tantamount to having a uranium-235 gun-type nuke.

Now, in the 1980s, before signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, South Africa did develop indigenous technology for increasing the uranium-235 concentration in uranium ore – from 3/10ths of a percent to 3 percent – for use as nuclear power plant fuel. And did "divert" some of the 3 percent enriched uranium to a nearby secret facility for further enrichment to 90 percent uranium-235.

Over a period of years, they produced about 750 pounds of 90-percent uranium-235 from which they constructed six "gun-type" nukes – the kind we dropped on Hiroshima. Each nuke weighed about a thousand pounds and was, therefore, not deemed deliverable by South African aircraft or missiles.

However, South Africa decided to sign the NPT, so they secretly obliterated their nuke facility, dismantled the 6 gun-type nukes they had fabricated, and blended the recovered 90-percent uranium-235 back down to 3 percent.

Meanwhile, Iraq was also secretly attempting to produce 90-percent uranium-235. They failed to even produce significant quantities of 3-percent uranium-235. So making hundreds of pounds of 90-percent uranium-235 is not a "slam-dunk."

Now, almost anyone having 120 pounds of uranium-235 can construct a gun-type nuke. But you can't make a gun-type nuke with any amount of plutonium-239. You have to make an implosion-type nuke and that means you have to develop a high-explosive implosion system. And that certainly is no "slam-dunk."

So, the 6-10 sub-critical pieces of plutonium-239 the North Koreans have is not tantamount to having real or "virtual" nukes.

Nevertheless, the neocons realize that China would never allow Bush to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea's "nuclear" facilities. So, they've adopted a new approach to effecting 'regime change' in North Korea.

The official Korean Central News Agency rather well characterized their new approach in this editorial of Nov. 27, 2004.

"A far-fetched assertion is a main leverage employed by the U.S. to implement its strategy to dominate the world and it, therefore, used to launch aggression and war on its basis.

"It is the U.S. brigandish logic and mode of action to rob others of their properties and charge their owner demanding their return with theft and pressurize themIt is an irrefutable and stark fact that the U.S. invaded Iraq last year on the basis of the sheer lie and far-fetched assertion that it possesses 'weapons of mass destruction.'

"The U.S. deliberately assesses and finds faults with the human rights performances in other countries by its own human rights standards and interferes in their internal affairs, another manifestation of its brigandish method.

"The U.S. has abused the name of the UN and unlawfully kept South Korea under its occupation for more than half a century while committing all sorts of crimes.

"This is a clear proof of the unreasonable and criminal nature of the far-fetched method employed by it.

"However, it is now busy with the false propaganda aimed to stifle the DPRK by force of arms and realize its ambition to dominate the whole of Korea.

"The U.S. does not hide its intention to use the human rights issue, missile issue, the issue of reduction of conventional armed forces and the religious issue as pretexts for stifling the DPRK even after the settlement of the nuclear issue.

"This clearly proves how frantic the U.S. has become in its moves to provoke the second Korean War. The U.S. far-fetched assertions will get it nowhere."


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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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