[updated below] According to information from the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and ISIS (Institute for Science and International Security), Iran has enough 20% enriched uranium gas (U-235) to make one significant quantity (SQ) of weapon-grade uranium (WGU), which is 25 kg of the metal. That amount of WGU can make one medium-yield, or a few low-yield nuclear weapons.
The IAEA considers 25 kg of U-235 to be one ‘significant quantity,’ i.e., a bomb’s worth, but as Cochran and Paine have explained, and as Dalnoki-Veress, Lewis, and Pomper have already discussed extensively, this figure is much too high in almost all contexts…. But to make a long story short, Cochran and Paine estimate that a relatively low-tech bomb program would need between 8 and 16 kg of U-235 for a pure fission weapon (an ‘A-bomb’), depending on how much explosive yield is desired. A medium-tech program, which is perhaps where Iran fits thanks in part to the foreign assistance described in GOV/2011/65 [the Nov 2011 IAEA Report], would need between 4 and 9 kg of U-235.” (ArmsControlWonk.com)
At 4 kg per bomb, one SQ would make 6 nukes; at 8 kg, 3 nukes. Let’s use both numbers. How many SQs can Iran make with its current stock of 20% U-235 gas? One SQ. And how many SQs can Iran make with its current stock of 3.5% U-235 gas? Four SQs.
Iran could produce one SQ in as little as approximately 1.0 – 1.6 months, if it uses all its near 20 percent LEU hexafluoride stockpile. Using only 3.5 percent LEU, Iran would need at least 1.9 to 2.2 months and could make approximately 4 SQs of WGU using all its existing 3.5 percent LEU stockpile. (ISIS 24 Oct 2013 Study)
That’s 5 SQs, which is enough WGU for 15 to 30 nukes. The amount of time to make those 5 SQs worth of WGU is only 2.9 to 3.8 months, according to the ISIS study. Subsequently, having used its 20% and 3.5% stockpile of U-235 gas, Iran would need to use natural uranium to make more nuclear weapons, which takes longer. But given the current number of centrifuges in Iran’s two known enrichment facilities, Iran could continue to make 1 SQ every 5.4 to 6.8 months. That production rate would add about 6 to 12 nukes to Iran’s weapons arsenal every year.
Iran’s Breakout Strategy
Now you might object to the above scenario, saying that the U.S. and/or Israel would undertake a military strike on Iran’s known enrichment facilities, if the IAEA detected this breakout (a rush to make weapon-grade uranium). But ISIS has repeatedly warned that Iran may have a secret uranium enrichment facility, outfitted with its second generation centrifuges (IR-2m), which are 3 to 5 times more efficient than the first gen units (IR-1). ISIS estimates that such a covert facility could make 1 SQ every 6.4 to 11.3 months from natural uranium. Using 3.5% uranium gas, a covert facility would need only 2.2 – 4.5 months to make 1 SQ, and only 1.1 to 2.3 months using 20% uranium. The IAEA would not be able to detect a nuclear breakout in a covert facility.
And this type of covert breakout is not merely a theory. The Jerusalem Post has reported that an Iranian dissident group knows of such a covert facility, which was recently completed.
“According to specific information obtained by the Iranian resistance, the clerical regime is establishing or completing parallel secret and undeclared sites for its nuclear project,” NCRI official Mehdi Abrichamtchi told reporters.
The NCRI said the new site was inside a 600-metre tunnel complex beneath mountains 10 km (6 miles) from the town of Mobarekeh, adjacent to the Isfahan-Shiraz highway, within the existing Haft-e Tir military industrial complex.
Abrichamtchi said work on the site began in 2005 and the construction of tunnels ended in early 2009. Work on the facilities was recently completed, he said. (JPost)
The two known uranium enrichment facilities (Natanz and Fordo) were each covert facilities until the West discovered their existence. So it is clear that Iran wants to have a covert facility.
The strategy here is simple. Make enough WGU in a covert facility for a few nuclear bombs (1 SQ would be sufficient). Once the nuclear bombs are completed, announce it to the world (perhaps with an underground test explosion). Then use all existing facilities to make as much WGU, as quickly as possible, to build a nuclear arsenal.
Iran would then have 1 SQ from the covert facility (perhaps already underway), and then 5 SQ from Natanz and Fordo using existing 20% and 3.5% U-235 gas (4 more months), and then 3 to 4 more SQs per year, working from natural uranium, at all three facilities (yearly). Iran could make 3 to 6 nukes from WGU at its covert facility, then add 15 to 30 nukes from its two known facilities, and subsequently add 9 to 24 more nukes per year. Iran could also increase its number of centrifuges once it begins the non-covert breakout, increasing its capacity to make nuclear weapons.
So the purpose of the current talks between Iran and the West is to stall for time, while the covert facility makes enough WGU for a few nukes. It doesn’t matter what restrictions Iran accepts at its two known facilities. Iran can continue to enrich WGU at its covert facility (or facilities). And once Iran has nuclear weapons, it can threaten nuclear retaliation against any nation that would want to bomb its two known facilities. Then Iran can ramp up its production of nukes, and have dozens of nuclear bombs within a year or so.
We are currently on the threshold of a third World War, one in which Iran leads the other Arab/Muslim nations of the Middle East and northern Africa in a war against the West. The leaders of Iran believe that a holy war against the West is necessary to usher in the extremist Shia version of the end times. See my post: Radical Shia Eschatology, Iran’s View of the End Times. Iran is attempting to obtain nuclear weapons in order to start an apocalyptic world war.
UPDATE 24 Nov 2013
Iran and the West have signed an agreement, pertaining to Iran’s nuclear program, called The Joint Plan of Action [PDF file from FARS news agency in Iran]. The agreement includes the following points:
* Iran will convert half its 20% U-235 gas to the oxide form, and the other half will be diluted to 5% or less purity.
* Iran will not enrich uranium over 5% during the next 6 months.
* Any uranium newly enriched to less than 5% during the next 6 months will be converted to the oxide form.
* No new centrifuges will be installed. No installed non-operating centrifuges will be put into operation.
* IAEA inspectors will have daily access to Natanz and Fordow, and will be permitted to inspect centrifuge production and assembly facilities.
My take on this agreement is as follows:
The agreement does not state, but virtually guarantees, that the West will not undertake a military strike on Iran during the next 6 months. It also strongly suggests that the West will not interfere with Iran’s nuclear program, as it has done in the past, by covert means (e.g. Stuxnet and similar measures).
If, as I believe, Iran is secretly working to make nuclear bombs, this agreement gives Iran 6 full months to complete the manufacture of a few nuclear weapons.
If, as I believe, Iran has a secret uranium enrichment facility, one that is already fully supplied with IR-2m centrifuges and uranium stock for enrichment, this agreement allows sufficient time for that covert facility to make 1 SQ of WGU. (Using 3.5% uranium gas, a covert facility would need only 2.2 – 4.5 months to make 1 SQ, and only 1.1 to 2.3 months using 20% uranium.)
If Iran does in fact dilute or convert its 20% U-235 stock, it still will retain enough 3.5% uranium gas, at its two known facilities, to produce 4 SQs in 2.2 months or less, which is enough WGU for 12 to 24 nuclear bombs (in addition to the WGU produced at any covert facilities).
The IAEA, in its 8 Nov 2011 Report on Iran, has already described in detail Iran’s on-going program to research, develop, and test all components needed for uranium-based implosion-type nuclear weapons. So, once Iran has sufficient WGU, it will be only a matter of weeks before they have working nuclear bombs.
I believe that Iran was willing to make this agreement because they are very close to completing the production of a few nuclear weapons. They no longer need the Natanz and Fordow facilities for that purpose, as a covert facility is now up and running. Then, once they have nuclear weapons, they can break free of all agreements and restrictions, and quickly ramp up production of enriched uranium at Natanz and Fordow to make dozens of additional nukes. The agreement is simply a device allowing Iran to stall for time, until they have manufactured a few nuclear weapons. Iran has every intention of becoming a nuclear State, and of breaking every agreement related to its nuclear program.