Monday, August 3, 2009

Cheery News: Iran can build a nuclear weapon any time they want

Many have long suspected that Iran can build a nuclear weapon. The Sunday Times claims they have some proof.  Of course, the ability to "build a bomb" does not guarantee that it is a practical bomb that could fit in a warhead. The Iranians may have a primitive detonation mechanism for a heavy and crude "gun" type bomb, but not a sophisticated implosion detonator. The difference is that the gun type device would require a much larger quantity of fissionable material (80-90% highly enriched Uranium-235 or Plutonum-239)  to get to critical mass - about 50 KG ,and the entire device would not be usable in a missile warhead. An implosion device would push all the fissionable material together at once, and would require much less than 10 KG of fissile uranium.
Now it is seems that that is precisely the claim being made by the Sunday Times, which claims Iran has perfected a "multipoint initiation system" Multipoint initiation systems are usually associated with non-nuclear fragmentation explosives, but  could apparently be used to build an implosion system for a nuclear device. 
Sunday Times has in the past predicted several Israeli attacks on Iran that never happened, and is responsible for many other canards, but this report cannot be ignored, because in fact, it is at least partly corroborated by previous IAEA evidence as well as US National Intelligence Estimate information.  Hopefully, if there are such British intelligence sources, they have also been talking to the Americans. But that is not necessarily the case. British Intelligence was rather surprised at the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that announced that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.
An earlier New York Times story described a secret part of the NIE that supposedly reported on Iranian activities that were unmonitored and could be nuclear weapons development sites:
The public version made only glancing reference to evidence described at great length in the 140-page classified version of the assessment: the suspicion that Iran had 10 or 15 other nuclear-related facilities, never opened to international inspectors, where enrichment activity, weapons work or the manufacturing of centrifuges might be taking place.
According to the Sunday Times story:
James Hider, Richard Beeston in Tel Aviv and Michael Evans, Defence Editor
Iran has perfected the technology to create and detonate a nuclear warhead and is merely awaiting the word from its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to produce its first bomb, Western intelligence sources have told The Times.
The sources said that Iran completed a research programme to create weaponised uranium in the summer of 2003 and that it could feasibly make a bomb within a year of an order from its Supreme Leader.
A US National Intelligence Estimate two years ago concluded that Iran had ended its nuclear arms research programme in 2003 because of the threat from the American invasion of Iraq. But intelligence sources have told The Times that Tehran had halted the research because it had achieved its aim — to find a way of detonating a warhead that could be launched on its long-range Shehab-3 missiles.
They said that, should Ayatollah Khamenei approve the building of a nuclear device, it would take six months to enrich enough uranium and another six months to assemble the warhead. The Iranian Defence Ministry has been running a covert nuclear research department for years, employing hundreds of scientists, researchers and metallurgists in a multibillion-dollar programme to develop nuclear technology alongside the civilian nuclear programme.
"The main thing (in 2003) was the lack of fissile material, so it was best to slow it down," the sources said. "We think that the leader himself decided back then (to halt the programme), after the good results."
Iran's scientists have been trying to master a method of detonating a bomb known as the "multipoint initiation system" — wrapping highly enriched uranium in high explosives and then detonating it. The sources said that the Iranian Defence Ministry had used a secret internal agency called Amad ("Supply" in Farsi), led by Mohsin Fakhri Zadeh, a physics professor and senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Council.
The system operates by creating a series of explosive grooves on a metal hemisphere covering the uranium, which links explosives-filled holes opening onto a layer of high explosives enveloping the uranium. By detonating the explosives at either pole at the same time, the method ensures simultaneous impact around the sphere to achieve critical density.
"If the Supreme Leader takes the decision (to build a bomb), we assess they have to enrich low-enriched uranium to highly-enriched uranium at the Natanz plant, which could take six months, depending on how many centrifuges are operating. We don't know if the decision was made yet," said the intelligence sources, adding that Iran could have created smaller, secret facilities, other than those at the heavily guarded bunker at Natanz to develop materials for a first bomb. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency only keep tabs on fissile material produced at monitored sites and not the number of centrifuges that Iran has built.
Washington has given Iran until next month to open talks on resolving the nuclear crisis, although hopes of any constructive engagement have dimmed since the regime's crackdown on pro-reformist protesters after June's disputed presidential elections.
Ehud Barak, Israel's Defence Minister, last week reiterated that a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities was still an option, should the talks fail. Israeli officials estimate that a raid on Natanz and a nuclear facility at Arak, in central Iran, would set Iran's nuclear programme back by two to three years.
An Israeli official said that Iran had poured billions of dollars over three decades into a two-pronged "master plan" to build a nuclear bomb. He said that Iran had enriched 1,010kg of uranium to 3.9 per cent, which would be sufficient for 30kg of highly enriched uranium at 95 per cent. About 30kg is needed to build one bomb.
British intelligence services are familiar with the secret information about Iran's experiments, sources at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said. Although British agencies did not have their own "independent evidence" that Iran had successfully tested the explosive component of a nuclear warhead, they said there was no reason to doubt the assessment.
If Iran's leader does decide to build a bomb, he will have two choices, intelligence sources said. One would be to take the high-risk approach of kicking out the international inspectors and making a sprint to complete Iran's first bomb, as the country weathered international sanctions or possible air strikes in the ensuing crisis. The other would be to covertly develop the materials needed for an arsenal in secret desert facilities.
The suspicion is not new. An IAEA report in 2008 cited similar evidence:

The first charge is that Iran is suspected of conducting high explosives testing. This includes work with exploding bridgewire (EBW) detonators and a detonator firing unit, which could be used for triggering a nuclear weapon; 500 EBW detonators were tested.

In addition, a five-page document described experiments for a "complex multipoint initiation system" to "detonate a substantial amount of high explosive in hemispherical geometry" that could be employed in an implosion-type nuclear device.

Both Israeli and Western intelligence have claimed that Iran would not have a bomb plus delivery system until 2014. In addition to the implosion detonator and the required quantity of fissile material, the Iranians would require a delivery system. Recently tested solid state long range missiles may provide that piece of the puzzle, and may be ready sooner than was previously thought. It is true that recent instability might make the regime more vulnerable to sanctions, but it also may cause the regime to adopt an agressive line against the west in order to promote national unity and restore its legitimacy.

Ami Isseroff

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