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Iran, Plutonium and Assessing the Threat

By Steve Schippert | March 9, 2006

With all of the discussion surrounding Iran's largely clandestine nuclear program concerning the enrichment of uranium, it is prudent to consider plutonium, which the Iranians have already produced quantities of by their own admission. A developing system of nuclear power plants, as Iran insists its goals are, has no use for plutonium. Alexandra has taken a look at the issue today at All Things Beautiful.

Regarding the general nature of the Iranian deception, she makes a critical observation that must be considered, especially by those who harbor any doubts as to Iranian intent.

Ali Larijani, the new secretary of the "Supreme Council for National Security" in Iran, went to a lot of trouble this week to convince the western press that Iran's intension is to gain nuclear capacity for peaceful use only. At the same time, his own brother, Mohammed Javad Larijani, who is also the head of the Physics Research Center in Iran, told an Iranian audience a completely different story. [TW: Emphasis added.]

During a speech he made at a conference on "Nuclear Technology and the Iranian people's will" on August 1st, Mohammed Javad Larijani told his audience that "It is our right to have nuclear defense and we will not be ready to give up this right..." and that "Iran's dispute with the West should have been over nuclear weapon production rather than over the nuclear fuel cycle...."

But doesn't it contradict Khamenei's famous Fatwa, which supposedly religiously forbid the non-peaceful use of nuclear technology? Well, trust Mohammed Javad Larijani to sort things out. According to his speech "When we say that the legislator tied our hands regarding the use of nuclear weapons, he means only that we are not to make the first nuclear strike..."

Iran, therefore, admits bluntly their intention to develop nuclear weapons.

Though not the sole example by any stretch, Alexandra has framed the above perfectly. Readers would do well to also consider the recent fatwa issued by Mohsen Gharavian.

Regarding the plutonium issue, she references a Ha'aretz article: Western sources: Iran has covert nuclear channel, which says, in part:

The Iranians admitted about three years ago to separating small quantities of plutonium, which is clearly associated with atomic arms development. (The materials needed to build an atomic bomb can be acquired either by enriching uranium or by producing plutonium.)

Inspectors who examined the plutonium concluded, judging from the amounts found, that the Iranians must have started creating the plutonium in the mid-1990s and not three years ago.

It should be considered that the inspectors would make such conclusions based upon their known sets, meaning the sites they knew of. That Iran has a covert system for nuclear research/production is clear. To assume otherwise is to unwisely assume that they have come fully clean, a position not even held by ElBaredei or Annan.

What we know is simply that the Iranians had a quantity of plutonium that was much larger than was expected. This, also, must be considered the quantity that they were shown, which may not be parallel with the quantity Iran possessed.

What we do not know is how Iran amassed such an unexpected quantity. The assumption that Iran must have started plutonium production far earlier than they claim is probably tied to the expected capacities of known facilities. But what of the potential of unknown facilities?

It should be clear that we do not know of all facilities. Iran has admitted or revealed little that was not first disclosed by outside sources. Iran may have produced a larger amount by simply having concurrent programs as of yet unseen. The potential North Korean source must also be considered.

If Iran were able to manage successful undetected shipment(s), this would also explain unexpected quantities. How much analysis the inspectors performed (signatures that ID source) on the plutonium shown is also not readily known, but it would be uncharacteristic of the Iranians to foolishly risk detection in such a manner.

There is much room for debate on how to deal with the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program.

There is precious little room (and increasingly less each day) for debate on simply acknowledging its clandestine existence.

To assess the nature of the Iranian Nuclear Threat, one should not focus on the weapons and their frightening consequences. Instead, the threat is defined by the nature of the regime which will control them.

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6 Comments

And consider another possibility... Especially since I have seen a few reports that there are lots of North Korean technicians around some of the key Iranian sites.

North Korea sells Iran virtually everything it needs to build a working nuke. Perhaps they won't sell them quite enough fissionable material to actually make a working bomb, but perhaps the will sell (say, for sake of argument) about half. In a few months, the Iranians make enough of their own material to complete the demonstration weapon, and voila! We have a tidy little explosion somewhere under the Iranian desert, but when the isotopic signature of the bomb is analyzed, it becomes apparent that NK material was used.

And not only will Iran have demonstrated their nuclear capability, but NK will have done so at the same time, though with a thin gauze of deniability (that almost noone will really believe). And they wil have succeeded in getting the Iranians to pay them for making that demonstration!

But this is just some conjecture, with little but supposition to back it up.

Just my $.02
DRK

This gets a bit above my molecular pay grade, but, based on my rudimentary understanding of nuclear physics, I would suspect that mixing Jiff peanut butter with Skippy peanut butter just might lend itself to some stability/reliability issues.

Remember that the most difficult part of warhead design is atmospheric re-entry survivability of the nuclear material itself. Re-entry is a violent process. Nuclear 'signatures' are not detectable because all uranium/plutonium is precisely the same. And that subtle molecular inconsistency from using plutonium (or uranium) from two different sources could lead to warhead instability. But this conclusion is a semi-educated guess at best on my part.

Also, Iran has no desire for 'A' bomb. They want an arsenal. A solitary bomb is nothing more than a glowing target. Many suggest they already have several on hand potentially purchased from within the Ukraine.

If I were Iran, I would make a bluster as they are now, and keep blustering until I had more than just a few at my disposal. The West will willingly avoid conflict right up to the point that they will have no choice...that's what I would think as an Iranian strategist.

The question regarding NoKor plutonium is, in my mind, the physical act of undetected shipment.

How likely is that? This is a question I have no answers for. Those that do will never tell (as it should be).

While I disagree, I could also be wrong. It's the thinking displayed that I value, personally. Many a hit has come after the first or second strike.

As Wayne Gretzky once said to a reporter who asked why he took so many more shots in hockey games than anyone else (questioning his scoring record and alluding to his scoring percentage), "You miss 100% of the shots you never take."

I see the threat of proliferation as an issue tied in directly with terrorism. If a nuclear weapon was detonated in the U.S. today, there are only so many candidates that could've acquired the materials and carried out the attacks and someone would likely be held directly accountable with punishing severity. However, fast forward down the road 30 years after proliferations has brought 20-30 other nations to the status of virtual nuclear weapons states (as ElBardei has warned) and such an attack would be considerably more difficult to identify those behind it. Simply put, the U.S. couldn't respond by nuking 20 other nations. Accountability drops with proliferation.

"This gets a bit above my molecular pay grade, but, based on my rudimentary understanding of nuclear physics, I would suspect that mixing Jiff peanut butter with Skippy peanut butter just might lend itself to some stability/reliability issues."

I don't know if you're referring to mixing Plutonium and Uranium, or mixing the same element(s) from different sources. Mixed Uranium/Plutonium can certainly be used for reactor fuel, and it might be possible to make a bomb that way but I don't think you'd want to.

I doubt there would be any problem mixing, say, Plutonium from two different sources, as long as both were "weapons grade". You simply get an isoptopic blend consistent with the blends of the two original lots of material. Characterising it shouldn't be too difficult.

"Nuclear 'signatures' are not detectable because all uranium/plutonium is precisely the same."

I'm no nuclear engineer but I'm pretty sure that's not true. For a start, each reactor design will generate a unique combination of different isotopes and fission products (impurities). My understanding is that if a bomb is made from Plutonium from a particular type of reactor, it's not difficult to look at the results of a nuclear explosion and determine what type of reactor it is. In fact, it may even be possible to trace it back to the exact facility. Rememeber, American nuclear scientists were able to determine the Soviet bombs' designs by sensing the products of the test explosions.

For example, there are at least three Plutonium isotopes - PU239, PU240 and PU241. Different reactors will generate different ratios, and they're virtually impossible to seperate from each other. (Seperating U235 from U238 is hard enough - the PU isotopes are not only much closer together in atomic weight, but their chemical properties are much worse than Uranium for seperation too).

Thanks, Nicholas.

Yes, I was referring to the differences in plutonium from two different sources and suggesting that it may (pure guess on my part) not be a suitable/stable mix.

Bearing that in mind, I mispoke obviously when I said: "Nuclear 'signatures' are not detectable because all uranium/plutonium is precisely the same."

That curious sentence was followed by one that reitterated my thoughts on the subtle differences of plutonium from two different sources. In hindsight, I don't know where that entire sentence came from. Should read is not the same, though even then that entire sentence does not fit.

As far as the mixing of PU from two different sources, perhaps it is a risk no one has encountered as of yet. Would Iran run the gamble of the unknown (if this is so) in order to field an arsenal?

The risk Iran runs in its current course (sans testing) is fielding a dud(s). The worsxte case scenario for Iran is to fire a nuke at Israel (or elsewhere...US forces in Iraq?) that lands with an inert thud as an expensive 'dirty bomb'. They will have swung for the fences and the Mighty Casey will have struck out...and breathed his last breath.

Steve,

The plutonium is identical, but as Nicholas pointed out, the trace isotopes would be in differing proportions and therefore a fingerprint of the reactor where the plutonium was made. Mixing the plutonium form 2 or more sources would have no effect on the reliability of the bomb. The key is the enrichment level of the plutonium. Also, after the bomb was used, there would be no way of telling where the plutonium was made.

The re-entry challenges of ballistic missiles are avoided when the bomb is delivered in a cargo ship to the port of Tel Aviv or New York.