Some Actual Data and Informed Discussion on Iran's "Industrial" Nuclear Capacity Announcement

If we can collectively tear ourselves away from the ongoing scanning electron microscopy of Don Imus' soul, perhaps we may want to consider the most recent frothing-at-the-mouth over the war to come in Iran.

I mean, I hate to spoil the (war) party, but it does help to know the facts before flying into an unnecessary neo-Thermopylaean rage.

This person would seem to be qualified:

Jeffrey Lewis is Director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation. Dr. Lewis is the author of Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age (MIT Press, 2007). Dr. Lewis is a research affiliate with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Dr. Lewis also founded and maintains the leading blog on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation,

Before joining the New America Foundation, Dr. Lewis was Executive Director of the Managing the Atom Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Previously, he served as a Research Fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy (CISSM), Executive Director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and with the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.

Dr. Lewis received his Ph.D. in Policy Studies (International Security and Economic Policy) from the University of Maryland and his B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.


Jeffrey Glenn Lewis


The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, forthcoming 2007).

“Gas Centrifuges and the Future of the Nonproliferation Regime,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (January/February 2007).

“Bomb in the Backyard,” (with Peter D. Zimmerman) Foreign Policy (November/December 2006).

Ambiguous ArsenalBulletin of Atomic Scientists, May/June 2005.

“Programs to Watch” and “False Alarm on Foreign Capabilities,” Arms Control Today, November 2004.

Selected Space Programs in the 2005 Appropriations Process, Prepared for the 9th Annual ISODARCO Meeting, Nanjing, China, 12-15 October 2004.

U.S. Space Operations in the International Context, The report of a Dwight D. Eisenhower National Security Series workshop co-sponsored with The Eisenhower Institute, June 2004

Space Weapons in Defense Planning,” INESAP Bulletin No. 23, April 2004.

Cooperative Monitoring in Outer Space to Manage Crowding and Build Confidence,” Prepared for the 45th Annual ISA Convention, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 17-20 March 2004.

Space Weapons in the 2005 US Defense Budget Request,” Prepared for the Workshop on Outer Space and Security, Geneva, Switzerland, 25-26 March 2004

What If Space Were Weaponized? Possible Consequences for Crisis Scenarios, Center for Defense Information Monograph. February 2004.

Arms Race in Space? US Air Force Quietly Focuses on Space Control,” Defense News (September 1, 2003).

The unsettled legacy of the Cold War,” Daedalus 131:4 (2002) 5-10.

An Arms Control Alternative to the Pentagon’s Plans in Space” The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 3:1 (Winter/Spring 2002) 111-126.

OK, now that we have that out of the way -- I know, I know, not as qualified as Michael Gordon or Gwen Ifill, let alone Bo Dietl, but, you know, like, he might have something to add here -- let's get to the actual issue:


So, in case you missed it … some members of the news media are freaking out reporting Ahmadinejad’s claim that Iran is enriching uranium “on an industrial scale,” Larijani’s claim that Iran is running UF6 though 3,000 centrifuges,” and the usual pundits warnings that the end of the world is just around the corner … Repent!

Seriously people, you should just write it on a placard and wander the streets ringing a bell.

As far as I can tell, the technical people have said two things:

  • Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Director Gholamreza Aqazadeh said “With the entry into the stage of mass-production of centrifuges and the start of nuclear fuel production on an industrial scale and with several years of efforts and hopes bearing fruit, the (nuclear) project has entered a new stage.”
  • AEOI’s Mohammad Saiedi declined to say how many centrifuges Iran had, explaining “We enter the industrial stage after passing the pilot stage. ... Our pilot stage included two cascades of 164 centrifuges; we passed the stage and entered the industrial level.”

As I read these statements, the Iranians are confirming what was reported the other day … that Iran has installed additional 164-machine cascades—maybe more than 1,000 centrifuges in total—at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz.

Three things worth keeping in mind, before you sell that nice little townhouse on Logan Circle and relocate to Montana:

  • 1,000 P1 centrifuges (assuming 2 kg SWU per machine) operating continuously require 23-29 months to enrich enough uranium for a bomb; 3,000 P1 centrifuges would take 8-10 months. Either way, we’ve still got time, probably two years assuming the centrifuges can operate continuously.
  • Iran still does not operate its centrifuges continuously. Based on Iran’s past consumption of UF6, Iran feeds gas into its centrifuges only about 20 percent of the time, suggesting the machines are either breaking down or that Iran cannot use its own UF6 as feedstock.
  • There is no evidence that Iran can mass produce the components of 3,000 centrifuges. The Iranians can claim mass production, but I want to see the evidence that Iran can mass produce ball bearings and maraging steel bellows for the P1. Diplomats have been saying Iran imported enough components for about 1,000 to 2,000 centrifuges. So, my guess is that Iran can make today’s announcement with what they bought from AQ Khan; they may run into problems when they try to push past that number.

All of this is to suggest that today’s announcement seems like a stunt.

After all, a few thousand P1 centrifuges is nowhere near industrial scale. A 1,000 MW(e) reactor requires something like 100,000 SWU each year to keep it fueled. Aqazadeh mentioned plans for an indigenous 360 MW(e) electric reactor—assuming 36,000 SWU to keep it fueled, Iran would need 18,000 P1 centrifuges. Good luck with that.

The technical people have 1-2 thousand reasons, however, to make this announcement now. If Iran relies on imported components, AEOI needs to make the big announcement now because installing more than 2,000 centrifuges or enriching large amounts of uranium may not be possible for a couple of years.

As for A-Bomb [i.e., Ahmadinejad] and the political people, they also have a motive to exaggerate Iran’s progress. Redefining Iran’s pilot efforts may help hardliners accuse pragmatists of trading away “industrial scale” enrichment capabilities—capabilities Iran does not yet have.

That’s a pretty neat trick. But I don’t see why we need to fall for it.

And the follow-up:

Paul at Total Wonkerr adds some value to my post, including reminding readers of a late March story from AFP’s Michael Adler stating that a …

... diplomat said Iran had installed six cascades of 164 centrifuges each at Natanz and was test-running four of the cascades.

That would be 1,640 984 centrifuges.

I propose we follow Saeedi’s advice to “wait for the next 20 days when IAEA inspectors present their reports” to get the number, rather than inferring the worst from A-bomb’s bellicose rhetoric.

Update: My mistake, I too quickly read Adler to say that four more were under construction (rather than being test run). I suspect they have one or more cascades under construction beyond the six at the end of last month.

Scott Ritter agrees with this analysis -- but we know he's a crazy conspiracy nut who wouldn't know what he's talking about, either (you know, like, just a chief weapons inspector for the United Nations in Iraq from 1991 to 1998). Worst thing: he raises his voice when he gets unaccountably angry about (for example:) the lies of his government, which are driving his country off a cliff. It just isn't done!

Bombs away! The GOP is looking bad for 2008! Must kill more brown people, especially since nary a Democrat will object.

And we simply can't have information like this all over the 24-hour cable-news channels, now, can we? A choice quote:
Commerce Department data released today show that the share of national income going to wages and salaries in 2006 was at its lowest level on record, with data going back to 1929.[1] The share of national income captured by corporate profits, in contrast, was at its highest level on record. [2]
Much better to scream bloody murder about Hitler 9.0 (or is it up to 10 or higher now?), also known as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran who has no ultimate power over military (or pretty much any other) policy, or sound the depths of Don Imus' mental innards (a shout of "mark twain" would surprise me, unless the scale is nanometric). Oh, yes, much.


Popular Posts