Policymakers must now assume that Iran has the enriched uranium it needs to build a nuclear weapon

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Policymakers must now assume that Iran has the enriched uranium it needs to build a nuclear weapon

DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.33868.69760

[Additional background for non-scientists is appended]

June 1, 2022

Policymakers must now assume that Iran has the enriched uranium it needs to build a nuclear weapon. Containment is a failure. Iran’s breakout time is now essentially at zero

According to estimates prepared from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)  reports and Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS),  Iran now has sufficient stores of highly enriched uranium (e.g., HEU or 60 percent enriched uranium ) to fashion a crude nuclear weapon. [1]

As I predicted in March, Iran now has sufficient HEU, the required centrifuges, and the skill to rapidly increase enrichment of weapon-grade uranium (e.g., WGU or 90 percent enriched uranium) within a few weeks. [2]

After allegedly abandoning its nuclear program in  2003,  (e.g., the Amad plan led by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh who was assassinated in November 2020), Iran has built secret nuclear facilities, obstructed IAEA inspections, and repeatedly denied or downplayed  its ongoing efforts to enrich uranium  International efforts, primarily via  the deeply flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) focused on limiting Iran’s supply of HEU. It is now clear that  JCPOA failed and lack of inspections and enforcement, allowed Iran the time to build its enriched uranium stores to their present state.

Despite the manifest failure of the JCPOA and Iran’s history of deception and obstruction, the Biden administration and others in the west dangerously and naively continue efforts to renegotiate a still weaker agreement, even though independent IAEA verification of any deal will again prove to  be futile.

Using worst-case timeline estimates, according to David Albright and Sarah Burkhard at ISIS “Iran’s breakout timeline is now at zero… In parallel, within a month, it could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a second nuclear explosive from its existing stock of near 20 percent low enriched uranium. Whether or not Iran enriches its HEU up to 90 percent, it can have enough HEU for two nuclear weapons within one month after starting breakout.” Withing six months Iran could produce at least five nuclear weapons.

As Albright and Burkhard point out in their report, even if a new JCPOA was negotiated and implemented, any Iranian pullback from its current capacity would be  went into force, any recalibrated Iran breakout date would be an illusion, impeding Iran for a matter of weeks not the minimum year JCPOA once envisioned.

The ISIS report also concludes that Iran “could test a nuclear explosive underground or deploy a crude nuclear weapon within several months, certainly within six months, and deploy nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles in a year or two.”

Over the years the IAEA has repeatedly warned that Iran was hiding both nuclear materials and enrichment capacity as well as violating other Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty provisions. Evidence Iran submits to IAEA has also repeatedly failed to withstand independent scientific and engineering scrutiny.

Based on a recent International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Iran Verification and Monitoring Report of March 3, 2022 [3], and subsequent Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) analysis [4], Iran is continuing to advance its nuclear capabilities, hide nuclear research facilities, and thwart international inspections.

Since February 2021, Iran has denied the IAEA the ability to inspect and/or monitor known/declared Iranian nuclear research facilities (including Esfahan or Karaj sites). Gaps also exist in both monitoring and Iran’s accounting for the number and use of centrifuges at other facilities including the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant and Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant.

Although Iran has sent 23.3 kg of it HEU to its Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant (FPFP) in Isfahan, according to ISIS, “it is expected that only a tiny fraction will be converted into targets. As such, the production of targets will not remove the proliferation and breakout risks posed by Iran’s stockpile of HEU. This step should be viewed as a cynical attempt by Iran to place a civilian mask on an inherently military material and lay a precedent for future production of HEU.” [4]

in early February 2021, Iran began producing uranium metal (see background information below) from both 20 percent enriched uranium and 60 percent enriched uranium for by the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). This an open violation of its JCPOA commitments. In an article published in Science on 15 July 2021 (“Iran’s plans for research reactor fuel imperil revival of nuclear deal”), Andrea Stricker, a nonproliferation analyst at the nonprofit Foundation for Defense of Democracies countered Iran’s claim that it was using the metal to produce medical isotopes. “Iran is pursuing a strategy of brinkmanship,” said Stricker, “It is using civil-use justifications as a pretext to brazenly advance its nuclear weapons–related knowledge.”

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[1] David Albright and Sarah Burkhard. “Iran’s breakout timeline is now at zero.” Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). June 1,  2022. https://isis-online.org/isis-reports/det…

[2] Lerner, K. Lee. Iran’s nuclear breakout window narrows. Taking Bearings.  March 9, 2022. https://blogs.harvard.edu/kleelerner/ira…

[3]  IAEA report. “Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015). International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files…

[4] David Albright and Sarah Burkhard. “Analysis of IAEA Iran Verification and Monitoring Report.” Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). March 2022. https://isis-online.org/isis-reports/det…

[5[ David Albright and Sarah Burkhard. “Entering Dangerous, Uncharted Waters: Iran’s 60 Percent Highly Enriched Uranium,” ISIS. April 11, 2022, https://isis-online.org/isis-reports/det…

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Additional background for non-scientists

Uranium, atomic number 92 on the Periodic Table is the heaviest naturally occurring element on Earth. The uranium nucleus contains 92 protons but a variable number of neutrons to create uranium-238, uranium-235, and uranium-234 isotopes of uranium. About 0.72 percent of natural uranium is U-235 All uranium isotope are radioactive as they decay, but only U-235 is capable of fission (a spitting of the nucleus) when it absorbs a neutron. This splitting releases tremendous energy

Uranium ore treated to form uranium oxide (“yellowcake”) and then combined over a series of steps with anhydrous hydrogen fluoride and fluorine gas to form uranium hexafluoride (UF6). Uranium hexafluoride can exist as a gas used in further enhancement or as a liquid or solid for storage and shipping. Uranium hexafluoride does not react with atmospheric gases (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, etc.) but is reacts with water and water vapor in the air to form hydrogen fluoride (a corrosive) and uranyl fluoride (UO2F2).

During gaseous diffusion, uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas passes through hundreds of fine porous filters that help separate the faster moving U-234 and U-235 atoms from the heavier and slower moving U-238 isotopes. Accordingly, two output streams — one enriched in U-235 and the other depleted in U-235 are observed. With further processing of the enriched uranium the percentage of U-235 increases.

To be used as nuclear fuel the uranium must be enriched 3 to 5 percent. Highly Enriched Uranium is 60 percent U-235 and weapons grade-uranium is 90-plus percent U-235

Centrifuges produce a force much stronger than the normal gravitational force. The spinning of gaseous uranium hexafluoride (UF6) creates a sight separation of heavier U-238 and relatively lighter U-235 atoms. By drawing off the U-235 enriched region and repeating the process thousands of times through a chain or cascade of high-speed centrifuges that spin about 100,000 rpm, one obtains increasing purified or enhanced U-235. Adding calcium to the enriched U-235 creates a salt and a pure uranium metal for fuel rods or if enriched to weapons grade U-235, nuclear weapons.

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