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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

3000 Centrifuges

posted by on November 7 at 16:35 PM


As Brad linked to in today’s news, Iran announced it is now enriching Uranium on an industrial scale.

But Wednesday’s claim appeared to go further, with Ahmadinejad’s words and the tone and setting of his Wednesday speech suggesting he meant all 3,000 were running.

The number 3,000 is the commonly accepted figure for a nuclear enrichment program that is past the experimental stage and can be used as a platform for a full industrial-scale program that could churn out enough enriched material for dozens of nuclear weapons, should Iran chose to go the route.

As many of the news reports point out, the same centrifuges can be used to make a bunch of weakly enriched power plant fuel—aww, environmental—or a small amount of bomb-grade Uranium highly enriched for U-235—aww, we’re all gonna die; invade!

Iran claims the enrichment is for nuclear power applications only. I say it doesn’t matter. Almost all nuclear power plants produce Plutonium-239 as a waste product. If you—angry, scary nation full of non-Christians—want to build a bomb quickly, reprocessing used power plant fuel to extract Plutonium is the far easier path to take. Just ask North Korea.

I’m certain this story will be used to beat the drums of war. My odds on bet is the only people to be irradiated, suffer or perish from the enriched Iranian Uranium will be Iranians.

A wonkier explanation follows after the jump.

Nuclear power comes from breaking large cranky atoms into smaller happy atoms. (Every element in the universe secretly desires to be iron. Go figure.) When Uranium or Plutonium decays, high energy neutrons are released along with the energy. These neutrons can act like bullets, shattering the next atom of nuclear fuel apart. Any nuclear chain reaction, whether a bomb or a power plant, is all about keeping enough of neutrons around to fission yet another Uranium or Plutonium atom.

Two tricks exist to accomplish this: use a fuel--like the rare Uranium-235 or artificial Plutonium-239--that releases many neutrons as it breaks down or keep the neutrons around long enough--by slowing them down--so that even a small number of them have a decent chance of finding another atom to smash before leaving the reactor.

Graphite or regular water slows down neutrons enough to make Uranium slightly enriched for U-235, or unenriched Uranium spiked with Plutonium, churn along in a chain reaction.

Unenriched Uranium, comprised mostly of the pokey U-238, can get into a chain reaction if you use something really good at slowing down neutrons. Heavy water, or Sodium metal both will do the trick.

So, here is the fun part: not all of the Uranium splits when a neutron hits it--some transmutates. In either kind of reaction some of the U-238, useless for making bombs, gets converted to Plutonium. (Haven't you wondered what is in nuclear waste?) Thanks to nuclear reactors around the world, hundreds of thousands of tons of weapons-grade Plutonium are floating around.

Without a doubt, Iran has the technical capability of building an atomic bomb. The fact that they'd choose to enrich Uranium rather than just purchase or produce Plutonium is actually a sign they're less than completely serious about building a bomb now.

RSS icon Comments


Thanks for a good level headed nerd read. It's a shame that the logic presented in this post wont be exposed when "the news" talks about it.

Posted by drew | November 7, 2007 5:59 PM

Western Powers like to wait for a new Moon to begin an airstrike campaign. The sky is at its darkest and aircraft are not profiled by moonlight. Even better wait for a month with fewer hours of daylight to allow for the maximum time of night time operations (like November).
After a night like this, after the air defense and power grids have been reduced, daytime strikes can proceed with increased precision and real time damage assessment.
As it happens, this Friday is a New Moon. In fact the moon will set before night providing a rare moonless night. It also the beginning of a holiday weedend so the markets will be closed on Monday. Not that there would be any reason to freak out over the weekend. Given the 11 1/2 time difference, any breaking news would coincide with our ngihtly news on Friday.
I wouldn't worry though. I made the same observations last year and nothing happened.
What's more since then oil has gone way up as the dollar has declined. And what is more important there seems to be new relationships in the east. Not to mention the tinderbox of Pakistan.
Which brings back to how crazy is crazy.

Posted by Zander | November 7, 2007 6:13 PM

Here's a bit of audio history on the gas centrifuge, complete with an interview with Zippe himself:

The only way to make sure ANY nuclear program is simply used for power production is total monitoring.

As Jonathan points out, you can derive enough fisile Plotonium from a power reactor simply by lowering it's flux rate. The only way to know is to monitor the reactor.

Also the only way to tell if a centrifuge farm is producing enriched or highly enriched weapons grade Uranium is to monitor it to examine it's configuration or output.

The concentration on centrifuges is simply becuase that's where they are at I suspect. If they had a reactor in place we would not be worrying about what they were spinning out of their centrifuges.

Posted by kinaidos | November 7, 2007 6:26 PM

That president of Iran guy was one of the hostage takers.

The hostage takers were on the payroll of the Reagan campaign.

What do you want to bet that el presidente is some sort of plant for the Bushies, and/or the CIA? Very few people in the country like him, he has no real power, but they keep playing him up in the US media.

Posted by I smell a rat | November 7, 2007 6:56 PM

Correction: At the top of the curve of binding energy is iron, not lead. To use your vernacular: all elements secretly desire to be iron.

Sincerely, a former nuclear physicist

Posted by David Wright | November 7, 2007 7:50 PM

oh man, you're right! And I knew this. I wrote the post too quickly on the way out the door. I'll correct it. Thanks!

Posted by Jonathan Golob | November 7, 2007 10:20 PM

Jonathan: No worries. You've probably read it already, but in case you haven't, let me heartally recommend McPhee's "The Curve Of Binding Energy" on this subject, to you and anyone else reading this. The context is a bit dated, but the analysis is right-on, and of course McPhee's writing is always a pleasure.

Posted by David Wright | November 7, 2007 11:00 PM

Fe. I believe Iron is actually the element that everything wants to be, they're just willing to stop at lead, if they're going to be fissioning anyway.

Posted by FeMan | November 8, 2007 5:46 AM

angry, scary nation full of non-Christiansówant to build a bomb
Hey, Israel already has the bomb. Or do you mean Israel is not scary because they would never preemptively invade a neighbor?

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