Some Notes on the VP Debate, continued

(The transcript is here)

In the last post, I reviewed Biden’s comments about the Benghazi debacle; now I’d like to discuss his thoughts about Iranian nuclear weapons.

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: When my friend talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk — what are they talking about?…We will not allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon. What Bibi held up there was when they get to the point where they can enrich uranium enough to put into a weapon, they don’t have a weapon to put it into…Facts matter. All this loose talk about them — all they have to do is get to — enrich uranium in a certain amount and they have a weapon — not true.

It is extremely important to understand that, while one might think going from 20% uranium enrichment to the 90% that is required for a nuclear weapon, means that one is only 20/90 of the way there, this is not correct. The first steps in enrichment require more effort–more centrifuges, more energy–than the later steps, because the amounts of mass that must be dealt with are much greater. The nuclear industry actually has a metric, “separative work units,” to measure this. Enriching uranium from a standing start to 5.6kg of highly enriched uranium requires about 1270 SWU, whereas if you start with a feedstock that is already 20% enriched, you only need less than 200 SWU. Even if you begin with material enriched only to the level needed for a power reactor, only about 400 SWU are needed: a savings of 3:1 compared with starting from scratch. (Here’s another analysis with slightly different numbers but making the same point…4% enrichment is much more than 4/90 of the way there, and 20/90 is far more than 20/90 of the way there.)

Regarding the question of how long it would take to actually turn the fissionable material into a nuclear weapon, Bibi Netanyahu’s visual aid clearly transmitted the message that the enrichment is the more difficult part of bomb-creation. How difficult the actual fabrication of the weapon would be depends on what kind of weapon is being built and how much information is available to the builders. A gun-type weapon, in which two subcritical fissionable masses are slammed together in a barrel, is the type the U.S. used on Hiroshima. These types are large and heavy, but they are also relatively simple. Indeed, the United States did not even test its gun-type design before dropping the Hiroshima bomb, because the confidence level that it would work was very high. The implosion-type weapons, as tested at Alamogordo and dropped on Nagasaki, are more difficult to design and fabricate but can be made smaller and lighter. It seems very likely that by now, more than 60 years after the opening of the atomic age…and with nuclear weapons in the hands of states like North Korea and Pakistan…significant design information is in the hands of the Iranian scientists.

There is no reason to believe that most of the design of a bomb, and much of the fabrication, could not be conducted in parallel with the uranium enrichment, rather than waiting for that activity to be completed. Nor do I see anything that would keep the bomb making from being conducted without knowledge by Western nations–it does not require multiple high-energy-consuming sites as does the enrichment, and it seems the only way it could be detected with any degree of certainty is via human intelligence–ie, trustworthy spies in the right place.

These are extremely serious matters, and are not something that the Vice President of the United States should be grinning about.

5 thoughts on “Some Notes on the VP Debate, continued”

  1. Once the enrichment process is completed, there is virtually no way to accurated target the material or the weapon. Only accurate human intell could provide any hope and that is unlikely. You can stop/ significantly delay it now because these facilities are detectable (even if extremely difficult to destroy). Biden is about as truthful about the risks in this situation as he was in the Libyan intell.



    I will add a couple of points. Weapons grade U-235 is >70% enriched. It takes about 35 kilograms [77 lbs] of weapons grade U-235 to make a nuclear device.

    There can be no pretense that Iran has any peaceful use for the enriched U-235. Uranium fueled nuclear power reactors run on 2-3% enriched U-235. Any enrichment above that level has no use other than being en-route to weapons grade. There are reports that at least part of the uranium feedstock furnished to Iran through the good offices of Russia was already 9% enriched.

    There are designs for bomb or warhead nuclear devices easily available from a number of sources. The design difficulties are reliability [thus pushing the KISS principle], Permissive Action [only going bang when it is supposed to], mass [especially in relation to missile warheads where you need to get it down to about 350 lbs], and dimensions [related to missile warheads or air dropped bombs. It is far less stringent if you use other delivery means].

    Any reasonably well equipped machine shop, anywhere, can fabricate a gun type device. Shaping the actual fissile material is somewhat more complex, but not insurmountably so; especially if your workforce is expendable.

    Israel is actually a harder targeting problem for Iran than the United States; because defensively they are on DEFCON 2 all the time. The United States is a relatively simple target with mass and dimension variables much looser.

    Keep in mind that Iran regards and calls the US the “Great Satan” and Israel which they have openly pledged to destroy is the “Lesser Satan”. We are a primary target, and they look forward to a nuclear war as a precursor to unleashing the Twelfth Imam.

    Ponder some points.

    First the number of major US coastal port cities where a cargo ship containing a notational 20 KT device could be set off on a suicide mission. Overlay the damage circles from Hiroshima on those ports, and note that all evidence as to source will be vaporized.

    Second, note that we have literally wide open borders at the behest of our government, and that multi-ton lots of illegal material/people are smuggled into our country every single day. And that once inside our borders, all cities can have those damage circles placed over them.

    Third, at the debate the Vice President was excusing government inaction and deception of the American public in relation to what happened in Benghazi for a month; claiming that the entire American intelligence community could not or would not find out what happened when our Ambassador was raped and murdered. And hinted that they had deliberately lied to the White House. In the same debate, the Vice President absolutely promised that despite Iranian secrecy and the lack of intelligence sources that a) the Iranians will produce the device sequentially after producing the weapons grade U-235, b)that we will find and watch the machine shop they are making it in, and c) we will have plenty of advance knowledge of this to do something to stop them.

    These statements by the Vice President do not build my confidence.

    Subotai Bahadur

  3. Subotai,

    Biden lied. (That, or he’s a cretin.)

    As to why the Obama administration is lying about this and almost everything else in the Foreign Policy area, remember that this is the collection of ghouls that elevated the principle of ‘never letting a crisis go to waste.’ Then ask yourself what kind of social, economic and political changes they could impose in the name of “national security” after a nuclear weapon went off in a US city.

  4. John Wolfsberger, Jr.

    Agreed on all points, except your parenthetical statement should be “and/or”. Just didn’t put a /sarc tag on the last sentence.

    Subotai Bahadur

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