My belief is that no one can evaluate the nuclear threat from Iraq by referring only to the history of the current military intervention. This investigation goes back into the 1980s and in light of that, I thought this was an interesting article. Remember this is Bush 41 and it was written 17 years ago.
Iraq, nuclear secrets or rumours?: No one can be sure if Saddam Hussein is close to developing nuclear weapons, but many experts believe Iraq is still several crucial steps away from success
05 January 1991
From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
When President Bush visited American troops in Saudi Arabia on 25 November, he told them that their mission had 'a real sense of urgency' because 'every day that passes brings Saddam one step closer to realising his goal of a nuclear weapons arsenal'. Bush declared that those who believe it will take years for Iraq to deploy nuclear weapons 'may be seriously underestimating the reality of the situation'.
Back in Washington, a government official responsible for monitoring nuclear proliferation, contradicted his commander-in-chief. 'The official intelligence estimate is that Iraq could be ready to deploy nuclear weapons in five to ten years,' he said. And even that was the worst-case estimate: 'I've been in this business long enough to know that you should always double whatever number they tell you.'
Bush may have decided to ignore official estimates of Iraq's capabilities after reading an opinion poll published in The New York Times on 20 November,  only five days before he talked to the troops in the desert. In the poll, Americans were asked what they thought of three different reasons for military action against Iraq: to restore the government of Kuwait and protect Saudi Arabia; to protect oil reserves; and to stop Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons. Only the third was supported by a majority of those questioned. Fifty-four per cent said that it was reason enough to go to war.
Since Iraq invaded Kuwait, the spectre of nuclear arms has fascinated both politicians and journalists. Baghdad's nuclear programme has become a political playing card in the hands of those advocating military action in the Gulf. Journalists have repeatedly printed sensational stories about Iraq's nuclear secrets. But specialists say that Iraq's nuclear capability has been shamelessly exaggerated. 'We need some scientific literacy on these things,' said the government official, who requested anonymity. 'People hear the word 'nuclear' and stop thinking.'
Iraq's nuclear ambitions are well known. Two years ago, the US government warned its allies that Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire the materials and know-how to build high-speed gas centrifuges. These machines would be the centrepiece of Iraq's nuclear programme. They are used to 'enrich' uranium by separating out the isotope uranium-235, which can be used in an atomic bomb. The percentage of uranium-235 in a quantity of uranium is its 'enrichment'. Uranium that is enriched above 90 per cent is considered weapons-grade.
Separating two isotopes of an element is one of the most difficult problems in applied chemistry. Several techniques for enriching uranium have been developed, but most modern enrichment plants use centrifuges. The machines spin a gaseous form of uranium, uranium hexafluoride, several thousand times a second. Complex forces within the spinning cylinder cause the lighter atoms of uranium-235 to collect at one end of the cylinder. They are collected and transferred to another centrifuge, repeating the process. A thousand or more extremely efficient centrifuges can produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb in about a year.
Iraq's nuclear engineers almost certainly possess detailed blueprints for centrifuges developed by Urenco, a European industrial consortium. Urenco operates the world's most advanced centrifuge plant in Almelo, in the Netherlands, enriching uranium for fuel in nuclear reactors. According to Nucleonics Week, an American trade journal, Iraqi firms have ordered ring magnets and metal caps using exact specifications from components of Urenco's centrifuges. The German Ministry of Economics has stated in a report that it believes that Iraq obtained the blueprints from two former employees of MAN Technologien, a German company that helped to develop Urenco's centrifuges.
Iraq has also obtained maraging steel, which is highly resistant to the corrosive effects of uranium hexafluoride, and machine tools to shape the steel into components for centrifuges. These are important, but many crucial pieces of a successful nuclear programme are still missing, say US officials.
This did not deter The Sunday Times from reporting, in a front-page story on 16 December, that Iraq already has centrifuges running in a secret laboratory. 'Sadam now only a year away from nuclear bomb', screamed the headline. The newspaper quoted its main source for the story as Brune Stemmler, a German engineer who visited Iraq's nuclear research centre in 1988. Stemmler, however, says the story was a product of the reporter's 'fantasy', and is 'untrue from beginning to end'. Stemmler, who lives in Munich, is considering legal action against the newspaper.
What The Sunday Times described as a complete centrifuge laboratory was, says the engineer, actually a building under construction, and it contained no working centrifuges. According to Stemmler, who worked on centrifuges for MAN Technologien in Germany, Iraq's engineers have blueprints for centrifuges, but lack most of the components for building them. And, crucially, they have no experience in making the machinery work correctly.
Stemmler and other nuclear specialists say that centrifuges need years of testing before they are ready for use. Otherwise, small imperfections in calibrated settings and vacuum conditions within the centrifuge produce vibrations that can destroy the equipment. If one centrifuge in a cascade 'crashes', it can set off a chain reaction down the entire cascade. Manufacturing thousands of the machines to work in exact synchrony requires additional years of work.
David Albright, a specialist in nuclear proliferation at Friends of the Earth in Washington DC, compares the experiences of Pakistan and Brazil. Both countries took more than a decade to develop cascades of centrifuges, despite much greater technical expertise and access to international technology. The director of Pakistan's enrichment programme, Abdul Khan, [recently in the news again] orked for several years at Urenco's centrifuge plant in the Netherlands before returning to Pakistan. Brazil may have as many as 1,000 centrifuges operating in its enrichment plant, but has only a few short cascades with 50 centrifuges. Brazil's centrifuges are less than half as efficient as those developed by Urenco. Nearly 3,000 of them would be needed to enrich enough uranium in a year to make a nuclear weapon.
Many members of the media have been deluded by spectacular rumours about Iraq's bomb. A 'secret uranium mine' revealed with fanfare on 4 November by the American television network CBS does not exist, say officials in the US. Even if it did, it would not be important. Iraq already has plenty of natural uranium, called yellow cake, imported during the 1970s. The country can also obtain uranium from phosphates that are mined domestically.
The Washington Post and The New York Times reported on 17 November that Iraq had built a plant to convert natural uranium into uranium hexafluoride. American intelligence agencies are doubtful. The reports were based on the accounts of Polish workers returning from Iraq. Roman Zelazny, the head of Poland's Atomic Energy Agency says that these rumours are false, according to Mark Hibbs of Nucleonics Week. Hibbs, based in Bonn, has done the most extensive reporting on Iraq's nuclear programme and has become a specialist on nuclear proliferation.
There is one way that Iraq could produce a crude nuclear bomb - and only one bomb - quickly. Iraq's engineers could take about 20 kilograms of the highly enriched uranium stored at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre near Baghdad, and try to fashion it into a nuclear explosive. About 10 kilograms of the material is 80 per cent enriched uranium oxide, and 12.3 kilograms is 93 per cent enriched uranium metal. It was supplied by France and the Soviet Union for use as fuel in research reactors. American intelligence agencies have concluded that Iraq might be able to construct some sort of bomb within six months. The uranium is inspected every six months by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was last inspected in late November.
But it would be difficult for novices to build a bomb with 20 kilograms of uranium. Making a nuclear explosive with this amount of uranium depends on other feats of engineering, such as designing a package of high explosives that can compress the ball of uranium evenly, and initiating fission within the bomb with a sudden burst of neutrons. In any case, a single bomb would not be an arsenal, it could not be tested, and might simply provoke a preemptive attack when the IAEA's inspectors discovered it missing.
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Charter member of the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy and proud of it.
God Bless the America we're trying to create.
--Hillary Rodham Clinton