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Saddam Hussein had us completely fooled, once. Prior to Desert Storm in 1991, we had monitored and embargoed his importation of high tech centrifuge and laser equipment that could be used to make highly-enriched uranium (HEU). material that-once you have it-makes building an atomic bomb easy. After Saddam’s defeat, inspectors found that he had spent an estimated $8 billion building calutrons, ancient devices (from the 1940s) that Ernest O. Lawrence had used to make HEU for the Hiroshima bomb. (See “Springtime, Taxes and the Attack on Iraq,” technologyreview.com, Feb. 7, 2002). Nobody had anticipated that Saddam would use such a low-tech approach.

We won’t be fooled again. U.N. weapons inspectors, if they are ever readmitted to Iraq, will search specifically for evidence of calutron construction. A calutron is a magnetic separator that makes HEU by taking raw or partially-purified uranium and concentrating the rare and more easily fissionable isotope U-235, which makes up only 0.7% of natural uranium. For a uranium bomb, this separation is the hard part; the weapon design is easy. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 25 kilograms is a “significant amount” of HEU-an amount, they say, “in respect of which the possibility of manufacturing a nuclear explosive cannot be excluded.” If Saddam has this much HEU, he essentially has a nuclear weapon.

It takes nearly two tons of uranium ore, run efficiently through calutrons, to separate 25 kilograms of HEU. Most analysts believe it unlikely that Saddam has enriched this much uranium. When his previous calutrons were discovered and destroyed, they hadn’t even been finished. Thus, he probably doesn’t have sufficient HEU-yet-for a nuclear weapon.
Unless he is using an even lower tech approach: smuggling. In 1996, Swiss police in Zurich arrested a Turkish national and confiscated 12g of HEU. They determined that the material had been obtained in either Kazakhstan or Russia. The trail was hot, and four days later Turkish police arrested the remainder of the smuggling ring, with 1.2 kilograms of HEU in their possession. 

Why worry?  A kilogram is not a significant amount. Even smugglers need a supplier. Is there reason to think that a substantial quantity of HEU is available?

Consider what we learned in Kazakhstan. After the Soviet breakup, a large amount of HEU was left in the republic. To qualify for the benefits of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the government of Kazakhstan gave its stockpile to Russia for dilution and safekeeping in 1995. A year later, much to their embarrassment, the Kazakhstanis  reported the discovery of another 205 kilograms of HEU. It had never been listed as missing, and no one was looking for it; it just turned up. The bookkeeping of the former Soviet states makes Enron’s accounting look scrupulous. How much more HEU is still out there, undocumented? Nobody knows. That’s why we worry.

If you have your hands on a few grams of U-235, then Saddam is almost certainly your best customer. Assuming he had spent $8 billion on calutrons to try to produce 25 kilograms, then his cost was $320 million per kilogram. That is over 12 times the market value of gem-quality diamonds.

In November 2001, police in Istanbul seized about one kilogram of HEU that smugglers tried to sell to undercover agents for $750,000. Why were the smugglers asking for so little? Maybe they didn’t know their own worth. Or-here’s a chilling thought-maybe there is competition, and it is a buyer’s market.

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