Would Air-strikes Work?: Understanding Iran's Nuclear Programme and the Possible Consequences of a Military Strike
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(1) Clandestine facilities Given Iran's stated plans in 2006 to install 3000 centrifuges at Natanz, it can be reasonably assumed that Iran has component parts for many more centrifuges than are operating currently. A clandestine Iranian enrichment facility, prepared in advance, containing say, 6,000 P-1 centrifuges could produce about 20 kg of highly enriched uranium in three months, enough for a nuclear weapon. If P-2 centrifuges were available, the time could be reduced to about six weeks. The larger the number of centrifuges used, the shorter the time taken to produce sufficiently highly enriched uranium.Obviously, the time required to get a clandestine enrichment operation up to speed would depend upon the extent of prior preparations. Under clandestine conditions and unlike the current programme, Iran could seek outside technical and material support to overcome difficulties. The extent to which a decision to accelerate a clandestine programme would change the nature of Iran's nuclear programme should not be underestimated. People forget that the Manhatten Project produced a nuclear weapon in four years from a much lower level of scientific and technical understanding.
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Before Iran can succeed in producing a significant quantity of HEU, a difficult technical problem will have to be overcome. Iranian uranium is reportedly contaminated with significant amounts of molybdenum and other heavy metals. These impurities could condense and block pipes and valves in the gas centrifuges. In spite of this problem, the Iranians should be able to enrich uranium to the low enrichment needed for civil nuclear-power reactor fuel. But they would not be able to enrich above about 20% in uranium-235. Therefore, Iran would not be able to produce uranium enriched enough for use in nuclear weapons unless most of the molybdenum was removed. If Iran sought to solve this problem promptly, it is likely it would need foreign technical help - for example, from China or Russia. Without foreign assistance, this problem could cause additional delays.
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Despite Iran's denials, many states suspect that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran's behaviour has triggered alarm bells. The IAEA has confirmed that, while a Party to the NPT, Iran has:
- Imported uranium hexafluoride gas to test gas centrifuges at the Kalaye Electric Company, thereby producing some enriched uranium;
- Produced uranium dioxide, uranium hexafluoride and a number of other uranium compounds using imported uranium dioxide;
- Produced uranium dioxide targets at the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Centre (ENTC) and irradiated them in the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) the targets were then processed in hot cells to separate the plutonium; and
- Imported uranium metal for use in laser enrichment.
Iran violated its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, required by the NPT, by failing to report many of these activities to the Agency. None of these activities are illegal in themselves; it is the failure to report them to the IAEA that contravenes safeguard agreements and this has fuelled suspicion over Iran's intentions.
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In the unlikely event that all Iran's known nuclear facilities were destroyed in a military attack, it could re-establish a nuclear weapons programme:
- Using stored, fresh nuclear fuel to produce HEU in a small centrifuge facility to fabricate a nuclear weapon; or
- If either the Bushehr or Arak reactors were operational at the time of an attack, chemically removing plutonium from any irradiated reactor fuel elements that survive the strike and using it to fabricate a nuclear weapon (as detailed in Section One, a smaller quantity of plutonium compared to HEU is needed to construct a nuclear weapon).
This process could be hastened if:
- Iran has a stock of uranium hexafluoride concealed at a secret facility, it would then be possible to produce HEU in a relatively short time and resume its nuclear programme;
- Iran has secretly constructed a small primitive reactor, fuelled with natural uranium, to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons; or
- Iran purchased fissile material from the nuclear black market.
The US Congressional House Select Committee on Intelligence Policy admitted that the US intelligence agencies have inadequate intelligence on Iranian nuclear facilities; increasing the likelihood that, if Iran has constructed secret facilities, they will remain undiscovered, even after a military strike.
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Furthermore, Iran could acquire weapon-usable nuclear material (plutonium or HEU) illicitly on the nuclear black-market. Because the amount of fissile material needed for each nuclear weapon is small (the size of an orange, in the case of plutonium) it would not be difficult to smuggle it into Iran. Iran may also be able to acquire weapon-usable fissile material from another country.Therefore, it is possible that a military attack on the Iranian nuclear programme would not delay it by a significant time period if, as expected, the Iranians anticipated a military attack, made preparations for a rapid recovery and, after it, withdrew from the NPT and undertook a post-attack crash programme to acquire nuclear weapons.In fact, if Iran devoted maximum effort and resources to building a nuclear weapon post military strikes, it could achieve this in less than two years.
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To date, Iran does not have the fissile material - highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium - needed to produce nuclear weapons. Iran could produce fissile material in three ways:(1) Highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the gas centrifuge plant in Natanz Iran has announced that it is producing low enriched uranium using gas centrifuges. It claims that this uranium will be used for fuel in nuclear-power reactors. But, by recycling uranium hexafluoride gas in the gas centrifuges, it is possible that Iran could increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope in the uranium to over 90%, suitable for use in nuclear weapons. For use as nuclear fuel, the concentration is about 3.5%.(2) Plutonium from the planned heavy water research reactor at Arak Plutonium would have to be removed chemically from the fuel elements and could then be used to fabricate nuclear weapons. A heavy-water reactor is a particularly efficient way of producing plutonium for use in very effective nuclear weapons. The reactor at Dimona, Israel, was used to produce plutonium for Israel's nuclear weapons and is the same type of reactor as the one planned at Arak. Iran has recently completed a plant to produce heavy water for the Arak reactor but the reactor itself will not be completed until around 2011.(3) Plutonium from the nuclear-power reactor at Bushehr Bushehr is due to become operational in November 2007. Once it is operational, Plutonium could be chemically removed from the fuel elements that have been irradiated in the nuclear-power reactor. The reactor uses uranium dioxide nuclear fuel. Plutonium is produced as the uranium fuel is used up. The plutonium could be used to fabricate nuclear weapons.Having concealed the existence of these components of their nuclear programme, the Iranian government has since acknowledged their existence, but insists that they are all part of its civil nuclear programme.
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If Iran's nuclear facilities were severely damaged during an attack, it is possible that Iran could embark on a crash programme to make one nuclear weapon. In the aftermath of an attack, it is likely that popular support for an Iranian nuclear weapon capability would increase; bolstering the position of hardliners and strengthening arguments that Iran must possess a nuclear deterrent. Furthermore, Iran has threatened to withdraw from the NPT and, should it do so post-attack, would build a clandestine programme free of international inspection and control.In the aftermath of an attack, following a political decision to change the nature of the nuclear programme to construct a bomb as quickly as possible, Iran could:
- Used stored, fresh nuclear fuel to produce HEU in a small centrifuge facility to fabricate a weapon.
- Chemically remove plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel elements - from the Bushehr or Arak reactors, if either were operational - and use it to fabricate a nuclear weapon.
- Assemble new centrifuges and produce highly enriched uranium (HEU). Some centrifuges might survive a military attack, but it is conceivable that Iran has stored additional centrifuges in secure locations.
This process would be hastened if Iran had a secret supply of uranium hexafluoride or if it had constructed a small primitive reactor, fuelled with natural uranium, to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. It is also possible that, post-attack, Iran could purchase additional needed materials from sympathetic states or on the black-market.
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It has been estimated by some that military strikes could set back Iran's nuclear programme by two or three years or, optimistically, destroy it altogether.37 There are several reasons to dispute this. As discussed above, a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities could kill a number of nuclear scientists and engineers, and may be designed partly to do just that, but it is very unlikely to destroy Iran's nuclear knowledge base completely. In time, surviving scientists would be able to repair damage done to nuclear facilities, or rebuild them completely, and resume the nuclear programme.Furthermore, it is to be expected that the Iranian population, including the scientific community, would unite around the current government and support any subsequent moves to attain a nuclear weapon for deterrent purposes. If Iran stood by threats to withdraw from the NPT, putting an end to IAEA inspections, there would be little prospect of international or domestic containment. Added to this, Iran is in the strong position of having the raw materials needed to resume a nuclear weapons programme.It is conceivable that, if the Iranian regime took the political decision to change the nature of its nuclear programme and embark on a crash nuclear programme, i.e. committing itself fully to building a nuclear weapon in the aftermath of an attack - using all available assets, including damaged nuclear equipment and materials, and purchasing additional supplies on the black-market - it could achieve this in less than two or three years.
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Bushehr If the Bushehr nuclear-power reactor were operating, there would be enough plutonium in four spent fuel assemblies to produce a nuclear weapon. In the event of a military strike on Bushehr, Russian oversight would be lifted. The Iranians could remove the plutonium from these assemblies in a small chemical facility built for the purpose. This could be done relatively quickly - within a few weeks.A military attack would not destroy all the irradiated fuel elements completely. Some could be salvaged. However, it must be emphasised once again that to bomb the Bushehr reactor after it has started operating would have catastrophic consequences; it would create a second Chernobyl that would contaminate the region and far beyond.
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In the aftermath of a military strike, if Iran devoted maximum effort and resources to building one nuclear bomb, it could achieve this in a relatively short amount of time: some months rather than years. The argument that military strikes would buy time is flawed. It does not take into account the time already available to pursue diplomacy; it inflates the likelihood of military success and underplays the possibility of hardened Iranian determination leading to a crash nuclear programme. Post military attacks, it is possible that Iran would be able to build a nuclear weapon and would then wield one in an environment of incalculably greater hostility. It is a mistake to believe that Iran can be deterred from attaining a nuclear weapons capability by bombing its facilities, and presumably continuing to do so should Iran then reconstitute its programme.