whence nuclear Iran?

After the revelations about Syria's plausible secret nuclear project, destroyed by an Israeli air raid, speculation is turning back to Iran

Arms Control Wonk and Whirled View have info, and interesting discussion in comments; and Nuclear Mangos has sprung back to life, which is a worrying sign to the cognoscenti.

If you trust the provenance of the photos that have been published, then Syria was doing a poor man's nuclear weapons program: they had the smallest possibly gas cooled, graphite moderated natural uranium reactor being built.
British technology, via North Korea.
Capable of producing enough Plutonium-239 for maybe one implosion bomb per year, roughly.

The story is not complete: the analysts claim the cooling was to be done by pumping river water some distance and then dumping the hot water back in the river in open cycle.
The fuel, though natural uranium, would still need to be machined and clad (in magnesium). Though there is little enough of it needed they might be able to fly it in in small loads. A commenter on Arms Control Wonk notes that the North Korean fuel fabrication facility is shut down. The Syrians would probably have needed enough rods to turnover the core several times in the next 2-4 years, which I guess is at least a couple of thousand rods, if each rod-port on the reactor takes several fuel rods, as is usual. I gather.
Where they got the pure graphite is a mystery, though it can be bought it is export restricted everywhere.
Final puzzle is reprocessing, the rods need to be rotated frequently, cooled and dissolved, the Pu-239 recovered, and presumably, but not necessarily the Uranium recast into rods.
Maybe Syria planned to export small batches of rods to a partner. Maybe they have an undiscovered small scale reprocessing facility, or they were going to crowd source it - maybe they planned on several small scale labs doing reprocessing individual rods, though that increases chance of discovery.

So, what is Iran up to?
Iran has been putting together the pieced for a break-out capability to produce nuclear weapons, while staying within the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
What they are doing is either a very sensible systematic approach to having a complete in-house nuclear power cycle, or a highly redundant ability to make their own nukes on a production basis. Or both.

Iran has a uranium enrichment cascade, actually several, but the main facility is several thousand Pakistan design centrifuges at Natanz, which is currently apparently making small amounts of 4% enriched U-235, suitable for power reactors.
They could, with time, or effort, go to weapons grade U-235.

Iran has a GW(e) power reactor at Bushehr, much delayed.
Current core is a Russian VVER design, with Russia supplying the fuel, technicians and IAEA guarantees on reprocessing.
Iran could break with the IAEA and get a quick load of Pu-239 by doing a short burn in the reactor and then disassembling the core and extracting the Pu. If they have the reprocessing facility to do so. They have experimented with (and declared to IAEA) the reprocessing chemistry. It is messy, not hard.
Russia stopped dragging their feet on finishing the reactor last year and it looks like it could power up late 2008.
Russia would stop future fuel supplies if Iran broke the seal on the reactor and took the fuel after a short burn, but Iran is developing enrichment ability and might be thinking to make their own.
Depending on how they exactly built the core, the Bushehr reactor might also be able to take a natural uranium blanket in which Pu-239 could be bred, this would require a passive "blind-eye" acquiescance by the Russians and some ducking around the IAEA, but it could be done. Again would require reprocessing ability, but most scenarios for Iranian endogenous nukes requires reprocessing in house.

Finally, Iran has a heavy water natural uranium reactor at Arak, 40 MW(e).
If used for short burns for Pu-239 breeding, with extraction and reprocessing, then they could make several kg of Pu-239 per year, possibly enough for 1-2 implosion bombs.
Iran recently announced that their Atomic Energy Institute was making fuel for Arak and they expected to load it and turn it on "soon" - like in 2008.

So, all of the Iranian channels for having options for nuclear bombs are open, if they have the intent and political will to pursue them. They also need a few good physicists, a number of decent engineers and techs, and politicians who can refrain from excess micromanagement...
Bushehr gives them the mostest fastest, at the price of open breach with the international community.
Arak provides the classical way for making a steady stream of bombs - it is how Israel did it...
Natanz is the most robust, but a brute-force big-iron way of making bombs, U-235 rather than Pu-239. Also may be furthest from production.

With the current situation, and "the Box" episode, I don't see Israel letting Iran turn Arak on.
They would launch an air strike. If they do, they'd probably also try to take out Natanz, though it may be dug in too deep for them to wreck it, and I'd think they'd take out Bushehr also.
If they can, the Israeli air force can launch squadron size assaults over these distances, probably coming over Iraq.
It is not clear they have enough planes with enough range to take out all three targets. Maybe they'd go all out on Arak and Natanz and try to pop a couple of bombs or short range air launched missiles at Bushehr.

Oh, and they'd start a war, of course.

I don't like how this is building up. Too much on the brink, too much rhetoric, too many politicians who perceive they have little to lose and much to gain and too little diplomacy.

We may be in for a tense six months or so.


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If the sheer volume of recent posting on Syria is bugging you, then it may make more sense (and be hopefully a little less troubling) tomorrow afternoon.

But I am genuinely troubled by the walking-back of the Iran NIE.

I'll ask you the same thing I asked Cheryl--any idea whether the Syria photos are positively smoking-gun magnox? Is there anything in those pictures that rules out a PWR? Transporting magnox for reprocessing is ugly since they have to be pulled out of the ponds early; since the single most puzzling aspect is the lack of reprocessing facility, that makes it a little more puzzling.

Yeah, Syria is more of a puzzle laid to rest.
It is the talk on Iran that keeps me awake.

Not much to see on those pictures, and I am not a nuclear engineer,
but, apart from why they'd build that small a PWR in the middle of nowhere I don't see where they'd fit the pressurizer and second loop. Its a small building - I can imaging a gas/water exchanger, with the water secondary coolant run open loop and it all fitting,
I don't see enough space in the building for a second pressure vessel or where they'd put the condenser.
Just don't think they're clever enough to do something cute and compact - the whole thing smells of 50s tech.

The whole Syrian nuclear plant story may be just bollocks. But of course that doesn't matter if they're already decided to start the war.

By Dunkleosteus (not verified) on 27 Apr 2008 #permalink

By the way, one should not expect Iran to stop enriching uranium if it is attacked--quite the opposite. Saddam started to develop nukes in earnest only after the bombing of Osirak.

By Dunkleosteus (not verified) on 27 Apr 2008 #permalink

I mean if the US or UK or someone western had a foe launch a surprise attack on a strategic facility of theirs, they'd just give up and forget about it... no way would it mobilize national opinion and cause a strong counter response nor prolonged conflict.

I mean if the US or UK or someone western had a foe launch a surprise attack on a strategic facility of theirs, they'd just give up and forget about it... no way would it mobilize national opinion and cause a strong counter response nor prolonged conflict.

Why does everyone assume that Iran having nuclear weapons would be a bad thing. The main reason for the instability in the middle east, is the asymmetry in military power. Israel, with its powerful high tech army and unconditional US support, currently sets the agenda itself. If Iran suddenly came out with a nuclear arsenal, the conditions would change in an instant. A terror balance, similar to the one in the cold war, would form. All parts would have to participate in negotiations on equal terms. Rationally, this would finally bring lasting peace in this region.

It is not what "everyone" assumes - it is what a small number of people whose opinions matter have publicly stated is their opinion. Specifically, the small number of people who could order the launch of air strikes in an attempt to stop Iran from doing this.

I would note two things: one of the sides in this multi-way regional conflict is extremely sensitive about the possibility of annihilation, and is geographically vulnerable to annihilation by a very finite number of nuclear strikes - while other potential adversaries are literally larger and geographically more robust.
It is not rational. Except in so far as it is.