Wednesday, January 8, 2020

How could Iran break out to a nuke in only 2 months? – analysis

A satellite view of Iran's Fordow nuclear plant


Until May 2019, most estimates had Iran at about 12 months away from having enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

How could it leap forward to have enough uranium to have a weapon in only two months?

Olli Heinonen, former deputy director-general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency, has told The Jerusalem Post that, “If the recent performance numbers, average enrichment levels, and current inventories quoted by [Iran Atomic Energy Organization Director Ali Akbar] Salehi hold, the breakout time by the end of January will be around two months.”

How does Heinonen make this calculation?

About 1,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium is enough to be converted into 25 kg. of weaponized uranium, which is enough for a nuclear bomb.

As of an IAEA November 11 report looking backward, the Islamic Republic was still only at about 372 kg., but had already increased its output of enriched uranium by more than one-third.

By December 23, Heinonen estimated that Tehran had already accumulated hundreds more kilograms of enriched uranium.

Part of this assumption is based on the IAEA November report’s flagging that Iran had reinstalled a cascade of 164 IR-4 centrifuges and one of 164 IR-2m centrifuges.”

The IR-2m centrifuges are five times as efficient as the around 5,000 standard IR-1 centrifuges which have been the Islamic republic’s main platform for enriching uranium.

So even before the Islamic Republic’s announcement on Sunday that it was abandoning any limits on uranium enrichment, the breakout time could have been down to as low as six months (though some would say it was still closer to 10 months.)

In and of itself, that announcement, without any follow through, is more symbolic than anything else.

Heinonen noted that Iranian officials have said they will install more advanced centrifuges in the underground Fordow nuclear facility.

He said that 1,000 IR-2ms could be installed at Fordow.

This would double Iran’s enrichment capacity.

Once you are sitting at only six months away and you can double your enrichment capacity, getting to two months away from enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb is not that hard.

Heinonen also believes that Tehran is succeeding with more IR-4 centrifuges which are even more efficient than the IR-2ms, and which many estimates of breakout time ignore.

So the big question is whether Iran reinstalls centrifuges it had detached and in what volume.

Even if the Islamic Republic fulfills Heinonen’s fears, it does not mean that: 1) it will continue to get to the 1,000 km. enriched uranium level; 2) that it will convert that low enriched uranium to weaponized uranium; and 3) that it will be able to deliver a nuclear bomb via a missile.

But even the possibility that Tehran could suddenly move forward to a bomb using advanced centrifuges much faster than it could have some years ago will be keeping the US and Israeli defense establishments up at night and busy with putting in place contingency plans.