Science 3000 Centrifuges
posted by November 7 at 16:35 PMon
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.
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.