The Jedi-rejects, prancing about with lightsabers, are actually Iranian artistes holding aloft tubes of what purports to be 3.5 percent low enriched uranium (LEU), which Iranian President Ahmadinejad cites as evidence “Iran has joined the nuclear countries of the world” (full text below).

A few administrative notes. Paul and I will be blogging at TPM Cafe next week, focusing on the Iran issue. Also, We have a winner! In a split decision, Haninah Levine’s inspired submission narrowly took home the coveted “Laptop Of Death” for his powerpoint presentation, “First-Ever Review of the Glorious Nuclear Posture of the Islamic Republic.” Thanks to all who submitted.

No Impact on Iran’s Timeline

Ahmadinejad and other officials (including Rafsanjani, Saeedi, and Aghazadeh) claim Iran has successfully enriched uranium to 3.5 percent in a 164 centrifuge cascade. That fits with a January 2006 estimate by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein that Iran could “start enriching uranium in a subset of this cascade sooner, but it could take two or more months to ready the whole cascade for the use of uranium hexafluoride.” (ISIS also has new images of activity at Natanz).

Iran probably made the announcement to celebrate the very first grams of LEU. Even if the cascade has been operating for a month, assuming 2 SWU per centrifuge per year, Iran can’t have produced more than a few (say half a dozen) kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent.

Hence the dancing guys with tiny lightsabers of LEU.

If you want to do the calculation itself, the Federation of American Scientists has produced a more user friendly SWU calculator than the Urenco version I linked to a while back.

Two SWU

Why do I say that Iran’s centrifuges are operating closer to 2 SWU a year, instead of 3? Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Steve Rademaker provided reporters in Moscow with US estimates on the time it would take Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon using a cascades of 164, 3,000 and 54,000 centrifuges:

We’ve done calculations of what can be done with 164-machine cascade. If [Iran] chose to use such a cascade to produce highly enriched uranium, they could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in a little over 13 years, specifically 13.6 years is our calculation. But Iran has made it clear that it does not intend to stop at 164 machine cascade. Iran has told the International Atomic Energy Agency that its intention is to construct a 3000 machine cascade beginning next fall.

We calculate that a 3000 machine cascade could produce enough highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon in 271 days. And Iran is doing this work at the Natanz facility. Natanz is an underground facility that was constructed specifically to house centrifuges. The Natanz facility is constructed to house 50,000 centrifuges. And should they choose to fully utilize the space that they have constructed in Natanz for these 50,000 centrifuges, we calculate that using these 50,000 centrifuges, they could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 16 days.

One can reverse engineer the calculations Rademaker presented to make educated inferences about the assumptions. The way to think about this problem is how many SWU would it take to make 25 kilograms of 90 percent HEU?

Assuming natural uranium with 0.711 percent U235, I calculated—using alternate “tails assay” estimates (how much good stuff goes into the waste) of 0.3 and 0.5 percent—Iran needs between 3852-4823 SWU to produce enouch HEU for a bomb.

Time to “Bomb” (25 kg of 90 percent U235)

No. of Centrifuges 2 SWU/Centrifuge 3 SWU/Centrifuge
164 12-15 years 8-10 years
3000 234-293 days 156-196 days
54000 13-16 days 9-11 days

What should be clear is that the calculation by Rademaker implies that the United States intelligence community thinks Iran’s centrifuges are not very capable—much closer to 2 SWU a year than 3.

We couldn’t make the balls.

The really interesting claim was Saeedi announcing that “the plan for the completion of the Natanz nuclear facility, including the launch of 3000 centrifuges by the end of [the Iranian calendar] year (March 20, 2007) has been officially declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).”

3,000 centrifuges by March 2006?

That accomplishment (presumably the first of 18 modules, up to a planned 54,000 centrifuges) would acelerate Iran’s time to a bomb.

There are at least three reasons to be skeptical of this claim:

First, I am not sure Iran can assemble that many centrifuges that quickly. The IAEA reported that Iran assembled 70 centrifuges during a one month resumption of production in June-August 2004. Assuming Iran has been assembling 100 centrifuges a month since the beginning of January (and had 700 on hand) and continues to do so, Iran won’t have 3,000 centrifuges until November 2007.

Second, Iran probably doesn’t have enough components or the ability to manufacture them. Albright and Hinderstein cite “senior diplomats in Vienna” as claiming that Iran has “components for up to 5,000 centrifuges” and “other senior diplomats” suggesting that some components are of poor quality and that Iran has components for an additional 1,000 to 2,000 centrifuges.

Hard to know which components are scarce, although Mark Hibbs has been all over this story about the export of ball bearing preforms to Pakistan and the question of whether Iran can indigenously manufacture it’s P-1 centrifuge.

It isn’t at all clear, Hibbs writes, that Iran’s tiny balls are good enough to get the job done:

The bottom bearing is one of the most critical components of a gas centrifuge. For both the original Urenco centrifuge models and the knock-off designs in Pakistan and Iran, it consists of a steel ball slightly larger than the head of a pin affixed to a stem which is then attached to the bottom end cap of the rotor assembly. The rotor assembly is then mounted onto a cup filled with lubricant, which is attached to the base plate. A spiral groove pattern is etched onto the bottom half of the ball. For models which serve as the design basis for P-1 and P-2, the dimensions of the bearing parts and their manufacturing tolerances are specified in single microns (one micron is 0.001 millimeter). Unless the bearing is precisely manufactured and assembled to these specifications, the centrifuges may not balance properly, their lifetimes will be substantially reduced, and they may crash soon after operation begins.

[snip]

On Feb. 24 the IAEA Department of Safeguards refused to comment on whether Iran can make the ball bearings for its centrifuges.

[snip]

Western officials investigating Iran’s centrifuge program said that Iran has experienced difficulties in getting its P-1 centrifuges to operate as predicted and that, during interaction with the IAEA, certain questions asked by Iranian experts suggested there were gaps in Iran’s expertise in development, production, and quality control. According to one official close to the IAEA investigation, the IAEA’s technical assessment suggested that, were Iran to resume centrifuge production now and quickly connect and begin operation of about 1,300 centrifuges it has set up at Natanz, “a large number of the machines might fail.”

Iran pleads incompetence with respect to with ball bearings to explain the cessation of work on the P-2 design. “We couldn’t make the balls” one offical told Hibbs—although some Western officials doubt that Iran could make one without eventually being able to make the other. Neither, of course, is a distinct possibility—at least in the near-term.

Finally, as the long blockquote suggests, quick installation and operation of large cascades might result in quality control problems. Some of you may be familiar with the “rush to failure” concept from selected major defense acquisition programs.

So, overall, I am treating this “3,000 centrifuges by March 2007” claim with some skepticism.

Full Text of Ahmadinejad’s Remarks

AHMADINEJAD (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The reason behind holding this glorious ceremony was the news related to the offering of a report on major progress made in the field of nuclear energy. Ambassador Aghazadeh presented that technical report.

Gaining access to the nuclear fuel cycle is a demand by the Iranian nation. Our people in different parts of the country and different parts of the world, wherever they are, they have emphasized the necessity to gain access to this technology.

The best manifestation of such a national resolve was the massive presence of the people on the 22nd of Bahman, which marks the victory anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

And by taking part in massive rallies, the people voiced their firm
resolve.

And later on, on every occasion, the Iranian nation has stressed the importance of this demand, voiced by the people.

On the threshold of the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammed and in the vicinity of the holy shrine of Imam (inaudible), peace be upon him, at this historical moment, I announce that, with the blessings of God Almighty and with the efforts made by our young scientists and the prayers made by the vigilant Iranian nation, the nuclear fuel cycle at the laboratory level has been completed and uranium with the desired enrichment for nuclear power plants was achieved on 20th of Farvardin, 1385, Iranian calendar year.

AUDIENCE: (CHANTS IN ARABIC)

AHMADINEJAD (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): At this holy place, in the vicinity of the holy shrine (inaudible) peace be upon him, I wish to seek this opportunity, I wish to offer my congratulations to the martyrs, the Imam of the martyrs, the supreme leader, and all the young scientists, and Iran has joined the nuclear countries of the world, and this is the outcome of the efforts made by the Iranian nation and the resistance.

And this is a starting point for more major points of success for the Iranian nation. Our nation, particularly the youths, on the basis of divine blessings and their self-reliance, have managed to gain access to this very important technology.

At this historical moment, I commemorate the late founder of the Islamic revolution and the martyrs which, the 20th of Farvardin, 1385, Iranian calendar year, a very important day in the history of the Iranian nation—this would be considered a historical date and would remain a significant and important date in the Iranian history.

I wish to mention some points regarding this major development. Knowledge and science can serve humanity. On the basis of religious beliefs, science, along with religious beliefs and faith, can lead to progress.

We have announced on various occasions that we seek peace and calmness on the basis of justice. We have on various occasions announced and we do announce that our nuclear technology serves peaceful purposes.

We do announce that those who have (inaudible) 50 years ago are in need of nuclear weapons.

Those who believe that political and cultural equations can be changed to one’s benefit by using nuclear weapons, those who are the ones who (inaudible) nuclear weapons.

Our nation is a civilized nation that relies divine beliefs and the will of its young people.

Our nation, in order to fulfill its objective causes, relies on the sublime beliefs that lie within the Iranian and Islamic culture.

Our nation does not get its strength from nuclear arsenals. The source of our strength comes from our profound faith and our profound beliefs.

We have announced that our nuclear activities have been under complete and an unprecedented supervision by the IAEA, and today we are interested to operate under IAEA supervision.

What has been achieved and what is going to be achieved in the future is within the framework of the rights of the Iranian nation and on the basis of regulations, including our nation’s rights within the IAEA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

On the basis of international regulations and our inalienable rights to (inaudible) our path for the protection of industrial fuel for our power plants.

Unfortunately, in this path, our nation has faced acts of obstructionism and bullying stances and ill-tempered stances by certain powers.

They do have an historical record of this. In the course of the
nationalization of oil that was an inalienable right of our nation, some of these powers conducted acts of obstructionism and they resisted the legitimate rights of the Iranian nation. And its outcome was nothing but a permanent hatred toward them by the Iranian nation.

The same powers are making use of a similar literature and argumentation, making use of psychological warfare, and in this they hamper the Iranian nation from making use of its legitimate rights.

I do recommend them not to repeat the bitter experiences of the past. I do recommend them not to create an everlasting hatred in defiance of the Iranian nation and the freedom-seeking nations of the world.

We have announced on various occasions and I do announce to you that Islamic Iran’s progress and the strength has always served peace and security of the neighboring states and the world community.

The government, on behalf of the nation, and all the efforts made by the elite (inaudible) and the innovative youths and the talented young people pay homage to the national progress and we do support their efforts.

I, as the servant of the Iranian nation, wish to express my appreciation to all those who were involved in making this progress and this great victory.

The distinguished scientists, researchers, managers and the atomic energy organization and the (inaudible) I appreciate them all and I call on them to make use of all (inaudible) and take steps toward the production of the nuclear fuel for all power plants.

The government of the Islamic Republic thanks God Almighty for achieving this objective. And I call upon the Iranian nation inside and outside the country to thank God for achieving this progress.

I do, accordingly, thank you all for attending this historical meeting and this historical ceremony.

I wish to thank all the (inaudible) and military commanders. I wish to thank the military commanders(inaudible) the researchers, the students and the distinguished participants coming from different sectors (inaudible) the distinguished families of martyrs and the disabled of war and, in particular, the representative of the Supreme Leader (inaudible).

I wish to thank you all. And I wish health, success and dignity for you and the Iranian nation.