We now come to the most serious threat Iran poses to America: the use of nuclear missiles against New York City and Washington D.C. This is a large, complex topic, and will require several postings to explain. In order to simplify the task, we will begin by listing several little-known or little-appreciated facts about nuclear energy, nuclear warheads, ballistic and cruise missiles, and nuclear war. We will then connect this knowledge to the Iranian nuclear program and to the nuclear deterrent policies of the United States and the United Nations. In this posting, we will begin by looking at nuclear energy and its relationship to nuclear weapons.
There is no way to prevent a nuclear reactor from being misused to produce an atomic bomb.
A nuclear reactor can be used to provide electrical power, and to produce radioactive isotopes for medical use. (To kill tumors, and to trace blood flow.) However, there is no way to prevent the peaceful use of atomic energy from being co-opted to produce an atom bomb. (The term "dual use" is sometimes used to express the idea that a nuclear reactor can be used for both peaceful and warlike purposes.)
This presents nuclear scientists and regulators with a dilemma: On the one hand, a well-constructed nuclear reactor is a relatively safe, clean source of electrical power whose waste products do not contribute to global warming. On the other, these waste products — especially plutonium — are very good for making nuclear weapons.
The promise of cheap abundant electrical power is especially attractive to undeveloped nations. This potential benefit to developing economies has blinded the United Nations. On July 29, 1957, the U.N. established the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to govern the worldwide development of electrical power from nuclear reactors. At the same time, the IAEA was charged with enforcing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT.) Signatories to the NPT pledge to use nuclear power for peaceful applications only. But it is impossible to prevent a signatory nation from secretly using its reactors to produce atomic bombs.
At least three NPT signatories have broken the treaty, despite frequent IAEA inspections.
Iraq, Iran, and North Korea signed the treaty; Israel did not. Therefore, under international law, it was legal for Israel to develop an atomic bomb; but it was illegal for Iraq, Iran, and North Korea to do so. Nevertheless:
• In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT, and, on October 9, 2006, detonated an atomic bomb.
• In 1991, David Kay, an American inspector for the IAEA, discovered that Saddam Hussein had no less than three separate programs to develop nuclear weapons. The most advanced of these had been severely set back in 1981 by the Israelis when they bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor. U.N. economic sanctions imposed after the First Gulf War decimated the other development programs.
• As we will see in the next few postings, Iran has also broken the treaty, and now has in its possession as many as 75 nuclear fission warheads.
Pakistan's A.Q. Khan helped three countries to break the NPT.
Between 1989 and 2003, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan's lead nuclear scientist, secretly sold nuclear weapons design specifications and know-how to the governments of Libya, North Korea, and Iran. He also attempted to sell them to Iraq. Khan peddled his knowledge and expertise through intermediaries headquartered in Dubayy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE.) His activities were probably unknown to the Pakistani government until 2003. In December 2003, Libya announced that it was stopping its development of nuclear weapons.
Israel has both atomic and hydrogen bombs.
Israel did not sign the NPT, and was therefore free to develop nuclear weapons. Israel is reported to have the capacity to produce between 10 and 15 nuclear fission warheads per year. (By comparison, Iran can produce 25 per year.) Israel has also produced at least three hydrogen bombs.
It takes a lot of uranium to power a nuclear reactor; but it only takes a little to make an atomic bomb.
A nation that uses atomic reactors to produce electricity must have a steady supply of large amounts of uranium. On the other hand, an atomic bomb can be constructed from as little as 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of enriched uranium. (Uranium enrichment is described below.)
An oil-rich country doesn't need a nuclear reactor.
Commercial-scale nuclear reactors are very big and very expensive. They are dangerous to build, and produce large amounts of toxic, radioactive nuclear waste that must be buried in a safe location far away from people. Although generally safe, nuclear reactors have been known to malfunction and even explode, releasing deadly radioactive gases into the air.
One of the benefits of a nuclear reactor is that it does not produce excessive carbon dioxide as a waste product. Carbon dioxide from coal and oil-burning electrical generators has contributed to global warming. However, oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran do not need nuclear reactors. They have huge oil reserves, and relatively little industry. They can easily supply their people with cheap electrical power from oil-burning generators without significantly contributing to global warming.
The easiest way to power a nuclear reactor is through uranium enrichment.
The least expensive fuel for a nuclear reactor is uranium. Natural uranium contains very little u-235, the uranium isotope usually used as fuel in a nuclear reactor. Only 0.72% of natural uranium is u-235.
In order to use natural uranium to create atomic fission, it has to be refined. (This process is also called “enrichment.”) Usually, uranium is refined by converting it into uranium hexafluoride gas, spinning it in a centrifuge, and then separating the light and heavy gases. The light gas is then centrifuged again, and again, until at least 4 percent of the gas consists of fissible material. (Nuclear fuel; uranium-235.)
However, there is nothing to prevent the gas from being repeatedly centrifuged again. (This is done in a cascade: an array of as many as 50,000 centrifuges.) When at least 90 percent of the gas is fissible, you've got the makings of an atom bomb.
On April 11, 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had successfully enriched uranium. (What he did not say, however, is that Iran had already used enriched uranium to produce an atomic bomb.) The world community reacted negatively, and began to seek ways of curtailing Iran's nuclear program. In a clever stroke of diplomacy, Russia proposed to relieve Iran of its need to enrich its own uranium by enriching it for them. But once Russia has purified Iran's uranium to 4 percent, there is nothing to prevent Iran from boosting its potency to 90 percent: all Iran needs is a secret installation containing a centrifuge cascade. There is evidence that Iran has at least one such secret cascade.