Iran’s uranium enrichment program on the back of an envelope

I’m starting to see some back-of-the-envelope calculations on Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment program. I’m going to collect the links here.

TM Lutas figures when Iran has completed processing its 110 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride, they’ll have enough enriched uranium for something between 9 and 35 small nuclear weapons. No guesses on how long it might take.

Cheryl Rofer calculates they’ll need a half million times what they’ve already processed to have enough for a Hiroshima-sized bomb. No word on how long that might take.

Here’s Global Security’s scorecard for the Iranian nuclear fuel enrichment program:

Experts say it still remains unclear how close Iran is to completing a nuclear-fuel cycle. But CFR Fellow Charles Ferguson and other nuclear experts, speaking at a recent CFR symposium, point out that Iran has proceeded with its enrichment process much faster than many expected and, despite skipping steps along the way, may have passed a point of no return in terms of rolling back its nuclear program. The Iranians removed seals from enrichment equipment at their Natanz reactor in January and, within a span of two weeks, developed a cascade of 164 centrifuges. Given the new political facts on the ground and Iran’s recent announcement, most experts admit that the most likely option now, especially if the UN Security Council fails to take strict action, is for Iran merely to freeze its nuclear program, not completely dismantle it. Others, including the International Crisis Group, have even called for sanctioning a “limited enrichment” program, provided it is coupled with intrusive inspections.

Nuclear Threat Initiative has a useful collection of media links but nothing in the way of calculations or projections of where things stand.

Trent Telenko of Winds of Change believes that Iran already enough material in hand to construct some number of nuclear weapons and makes the following point:

The government’s assumption that an American bombing campaign, no matter how successful, will slow down Iran’s nuclear program enough to buy time for a nonsensical regime change by revolution concept (no one outside the desperate-to-believe in fairy-tales idiots in D.C. believes the U.S. intelligence community can foment a successful revolution in Iran) would be laughable if so many lives were not at stake. Iran’s nuclear program is not a NATIONAL PROGRAM. It is an INTERNATIONAL ONE. As long as North Korea serves as an invulnerable sanctuary supplying ballistic missiles and nuclear fissile material to Iran in exchange for oil, Iran will get nukes. Looked at one way, nuclear proliferation may be seen as a phenomenon of globalization. Looked at in another, it may well be that nuclear proliferation is a game of covert nuclear warfare against the world’s sole superpower. No matter which is true, only forcible regime change will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and setting off a chain reaction of proliferation that will add a least a dozen unstable, nuclear-armed, 3rd world states in a decade. Those will use their nukes on each, themselves and hand some off to terrorists, intentionally or otherwise, for use on us.

I have no idea how we’d assess the likelihood of this being the case but it’s certainly a possibility.

Stephen Rademaker, U. S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation says that, once the full complement of centrifuges is in place, Iran will be in a position to make a nuclear weapon in a matter of days:

April 12 (Bloomberg) — Iran, which is defying United Nations Security Council demands to cease its nuclear program, may be capable of making a nuclear bomb within 16 days if it goes ahead with plans to install thousands of centrifuges at its Natanz plant, a U.S. State Department official said. “Natanz was constructed to house 50,000 centrifuges,” Stephen Rademaker, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, told reporters today in Moscow. “Using those 50,000 centrifuges they could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 16 days.” In fact, Iran will move forward to “industrial scale” uranium enrichment involving 54,000 centrifuges at Natanz, the Associated Press quoted deputy nuclear chief Mohammad Saeedi as telling state-run television today. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said yesterday the country had succeeded in enriching uranium on a small scale for the first time, using 164 centrifuges. That announcement defies demands by the UN Security Council that Iran shut down its nuclear program this month.

We have no idea when they’ll be able to get the full complement in place but this gives us some idea of what we can expect.If you’ve got a good link, put it in the comments, I’ll evaluate it, and add it into the mix.

Tigerhawk reminds us of a presentation on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program he attended a couple of weeks ago:

At the end of march I attended a discussion at Princeton during which Professor Frank von Hippel described the process of uranium enrichment. According to that presentation, Iran could do a number of different things with a pilot plant of only 1,000 centrifuges:

Master the technology for commercial-scale enrichment.

Make enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in one year using natural-uranium feed.

Produce low-enriched uranium for a year and then enrich the product to enough for a bomb in two months.

If I understood Professor von Hippel correctly, then, 3,000 centrifuges running in parallel could enrich enough uranium for one bomb in four months, or three bombs in a year. If Iran can get 3,000 centrifuges on line by the end of 2006 and is otherwise ready to build its first bomb, it could have a nuclear weapon by this time next year.

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