The Washington Institute for Near Eastern Studies has published a series of definitions of terms used to refer to Iran’s nuclear program.
Definitions published by Simon Henderson, an expert at the institute, said these definitions are important for understanding the technical terms associated with Iran’s nuclear progress.
According to Henderson, recent reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency show that within two weeks Iran could have enough enriched nuclear material to produce a nuclear explosive device.
He added, “It remains uncertain whether Tehran is immediately interested in making such progress or is using the progress it has made as a negotiating tactic to obtain concessions on lifting sanctions.”
The following are the most prominent definitions used by Henderson:
60 percent enrichment
Enrichment is the process by which the proportion of the isotope “uranium-235-” in a sample of natural uranium increases by seven parts per thousand, compared to the more common isotope “uranium-238”, with the atomic ratio of 193: 7 required for a nuclear reactor intended for civilian use or a ratio of 1: 7, about 90 percent, which is the rate required to make a nuclear bomb. With 60 percent enrichment, the atom ratio is about 11: 7, which means that gaseous uranium must be removed from ten other uranium-238 atoms in ultra-fast centrifuges. (For a more detailed discussion, see “Nuclear Iran: A Glossary of Terms” by this author and Olli Heinonen.)
These encapsulated and vertically mounted devices spin at about 1000 revolutions per second, separating the uranium-238 atoms from the uranium-235 atoms using the exact weight difference between the two atoms. The process is slow and involves various sets of centrifuges known as a cascading machine. Typically, a centrifuge plant with 5,000 units produces enough “uranium-235” for one bomb every six or eight weeks. Iran still relies on a conventional first-generation centrifuge (IR-1) to achieve lower levels of enrichment, but uses more advanced centrifuges for higher levels. These advanced centrifuges appear to be Iranian versions of Pakistani advanced centrifuges, although there are differences in design.
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Nuclear threshold time
The fastest and most advanced centrifuges cut the time it takes to produce bomb-grade uranium, which is why their use in manufacturing was banned under the 2015 Comprehensive Joint Action Plan, Iran’s nuclear deal. The use of centrifuges by Iran is a worrying development. Another concern is that a country like North Korea could supply Iran with enriched uranium, effectively starting its nuclear status. This is what happened in 1981, when China gave Pakistan 50 kilograms of 93 percent enriched uranium, enough to produce two nuclear devices. China also supplied Pakistan with an arms design.
A very large one
A large amount is defined as 90% of the “uranium-235” needed to cause a nuclear explosion. (Making a nuclear bomb that can be aimed at its target is more complicated.) A typical nuclear explosion requires a “uranium-235” cannon the size of a lemon and can weigh about 25 pounds. The ball is compressed by an outer ball of traditional material with high explosives the size of a small orange. At this point, an uncontrollable chain reaction begins, also known as a nuclear explosion.
design of nuclear weapons
So far, the IAEA has not discovered that Iran is extensively converting its gas-enriched uranium to uranium metal, a prerequisite for a nuclear device. But Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who died in 2021, gave Libya plans to form uranium metal in hemispherical forms, so it must also be assumed that Iran has knowledge in this technique. In addition, Pakistan has provided Iran with at least three different models of nuclear weapons, although multi-page documents may not have been complete.
Build a bomb that can be aimed at its target
Experts generally assume that Iran will use a missile to deliver a nuclear weapon, which means that the device must be compact enough to enter a warhead and designed to withstand temperatures and forces. that would be exposed upon entering the atmosphere. But Pakistan’s first bomb, which was ready in the mid-1980s, was designed to be transported by an American F-16 fighter, whose design could have been simpler.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is pressuring Iran strongly to explain what happened in three locations apparently linked to its nuclear program, where scientific samples taken at these countries showed the presence of uranium in possible equipment from Pakistan. So far, the IAEA has not been satisfied with Iran’s explanations.
Western officials often say that although Iran is reaching a worrying level of enrichment, it still has more work to do to enable it to design an effective weapons and missile launch system. A two-year time horizon was mentioned. Just as Iran has denied having or wanting a nuclear weapons program, such comments may contain some deception.
For Washington, the challenge involves balancing Allied concerns about whether Iran is best addressed through diplomacy, military action, or acts of sabotage of unknown origin. But in simple words, it is possible that Iran has already achieved nuclear status out of some fear.