Iran announced yesterday that it has enriched uranium in violation of a recent U.N. Security Council demand. The development is being hyped with headlines like “Iran Could Produce Nuclear Bomb in 16 Days, U.S. Says.”
But the truth is Iran’s announcement “had less to do with an engineering feat than with carefully timed political theater” to symbolize its defiance of the U.N. Here are the facts:
Iran enriched the uranium using a cascade of 164 centrifuges that spin uranium hexafluoride gas at supersonic speed. This process extracts U-235″”usable in power reactors and nuclear weapons””from the gas. The enriched uranium that Iran produced cannot be used in a nuclear weapon because it contains just 3.5% U-235, whereas a nuclear weapon typically requires highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that contains more than 90% U-235. Assuming Iran has perfect luck with the centrifuge, it would need to operate this cascade continually for more than five years to produce enough HEU (15-20 kg, roughly the size of a basketball) for a crude nuclear bomb.
To acquire a credible nuclear weapons capability, Iran’s next step is to use this successful experiment as the basis for building a 3,000 centrifuge cascade at Natanz, as Iran has frequently claimed it would do. In theory, such a facility would be capable of producing enough HEU for 2-3 bombs a year. Building such a facility, however, is far more difficult and demanding than operating the 164 centrifuge cascade.
Even if everything goes right, such a facility would not be fully operational until 2009 at the earliest. This is still too soon for comfort, but it does leave significant time for some hard-nosed diplomacy.