Iran flirts with breakout capability
The big news in the nuclear world is the release of the IAEA report about Iranian enrichment capabilities. A major implication of the report is that new estimates of Iranian LEU stocks (1,010 kg) could provide the country with enough uranium, if further enriched, to make a nuclear bomb. As reported by the New York Times, the calculations for the new estimate brought to light a 33 percent underreporting in the previous IAEA estimate (thought to be 630 kg when in fact is was 839 kg). There were a number of statements made by various unnamed UN officials yesterday that at the very least deserve a second glance. First, an official was surprisingly unconcerned about the 33 percent, repeat 33 percent, underreporting of LEU quantities. According to the GSN he said,
"What entered into the cascades was really well explained by Iran. Where they made a mistake is how then that material that enters the facility was split [into higher and lower enriched materials]. They use a formula to do so which obviously has some errors associated with it."
Miscalculations of that magnitude can't just be swept under the rug as a beginner's mistake, even if that is the case-especially when it means having enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon or not having enough material. Allowing this wide margin of error could leave the door open for intentional Iranian manipulation of numbers. One of the main implications of this grey area of LEU is the possibility for diversion. According the NYT piece,
"We're sure that no material could have left the facility without us knowing," the senior United Nations official said. But he admitted that the inspection teams do their own inventory just once a year. "It's only at that moment," he said, "that we have our own independent data."
How can you be sure no material left if you only have yearly inventory checks and your last LEU assessment was off by a third? The IAEA seems to have a feigned confidence that deserves some additional explanation or support, at the very least. The last questionable discussion point is the transition from LEU to HEU. On this issue, the Financial Times states,
UN officials emphasise that to produce fissile material Iran would have to reconfigure its Natanz plant to produce high enriched uranium rather than low enriched uranium - a highly visible step that would take months - or to shift its stockpile to a clandestine site.
Many argue that LEU to HEU conversion is a very small obstacle in the nuclear quest. Even if it would take "months," that is not a great deal of time for the United States to develop a comprehensive strategy that would also likely have to involve a great deal of international support. It is also important to note that the mere psychological impact of Iran having a breakout capability may, in and of itself, significantly alter security calculations for countries.