Skip to Content

Springtime, Taxes, and the Attack on Iraq

UC Berkeley physicist’s musings on why a U.S. attack on Iraq is inevitable.

In the next few months, spring will return, we will pay our taxes, and the United States will attack Iraq. The seasons have always returned, with perhaps a few exceptions when asteroids and comets slammed into the Earth. Taxes are often listed among those things considered “inevitable.” Why do I put the U.S. attack on Iraq on the same list? Because it is also going to happen, and happen soon. My prediction is not based on hearing three jackals howl in the night, or on the fact that Mars and Venus are flirting in the heavens; it’s based on what I consider to be a clear vision of some recent political and technological events. After I review the facts, I think you will share this vision with me.

First, recall some facts from Desert Storm in 1991. At the end of the war, United Nations inspectors visiting Tarmiya, Iraq, found a huge facility containing over a hundred calutrons or parts of calutrons. This discovery was a shock to many of us. Calutrons were invented by Ernest Lawrence in the early 1940s, and he named them after “Cal”-the nickname for the University of California at Berkeley, my school. His idea was to use industrial-scale mass spectrometry on the isotopes of uranium, and perhaps separate enough U-235 to be able to make an atomic bomb. His program was an outstanding success. By 1945, Lawrence’s calutrons (massively installed at Oak Ridge, TN) had separated enough U-235 to make one weapon.

That bomb was never tested. It didn’t have to be. A bomb based on U-235 can use a “gun” style configuration, and this was considered so reliable (and uranium was so difficult to separate) that no test was needed. The famous “first atomic bomb” tested at Alamogordo, NM, by contrast, was a plutonium bomb. Such a bomb requires implosion, a very tricky business, and it was not clear that it would work. So it was tested, and it worked. The uranium bomb built using calutrons, never tested, was first used over Hiroshima, destroying the city and its population. A few days later a plutonium bomb, a copy of the Alamogordo bomb, did the same to Nagasaki.

Why were we shocked to find calutrons in Iraq? Because we were too stupid to have anticipated them. The inspectors were looking for centrifuges, for laser separation, for diffusion plants-in other words, for some modern method of preparing nuclear material. Apparently, nobody guessed that Saddam Hussein would revert to the simplest, most reliable method, the one that had worked for the United States in its desperation five decades earlier.

Saddam had constructed facilities, at an estimated cost of $8 billion, to build a bomb that didn’t require testing. How far did he get? Does he have a bomb? According to official values released by the U.S. Government, a critical mass of plutonium is about 6 kg. They haven’t released the value for uranium, though many popular values are stated on the Web. But 6 kg of plutonium, less than a half a liter in volume, will clearly make a bomb. Did Saddam separate enough uranium to do so? Most commentators seem to think he did not. The facility was destroyed before it could become truly productive, before it produced a critical mass.

As part of the cease-fire agreement, Iraq was to allow ongoing inspections by UNSCOM, the United Nations Special Commission. Those visits continued until August 5, 1998, when Saddam abruptly terminated all inspections.

If you want to put a benign interpretation on this, you could argue that Iraq felt that its rights as an independent country had been denied, and that the UN had no right to inspect its facilities. Those who are more wary of Iraq say the end of inspections was the inevitable consequence of good detective work by UNSCOM. These skeptics say that the inspectors would never have been allowed to find the nuclear weapons plants Saddam was building; all they could do was get close enough that Saddam would eject them. After that, it would be up to the President and the U.S. military to do the rest.

It is useful to remember the character of Saddam Hussein. He is the man who ordered that Kuwait be set on fire, with the expectation that it would burn for decades. There was no military value to this act. It was done out of vengeance, out of hatred, out of a viciousness that even today is hard to believe.

Do you believe that Saddam has stopped developing nuclear weapons? Does anybody? Some people ask for hard evidence that he is doing so. The implication is that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Others question the assumption that Saddam is guilty simply because he refuses inspections, saying that this is denying him due process. Shouldn’t we assume innocence, until proven guilty? Doesn’t Saddam have rights too?

I’m not going to answer those questions. My role is not to advise, but to predict.

On September 11, the U.S. was attacked. Now imagine that you are President Bush. You know 3,000 people were killed by terrorists with no warning, with no demands, just out of the blue. You know that Saddam was once, a few years ago, caught in the process of trying to build an atomic bomb. You know that he burned Kuwait out of spite. You know that he ejected the inspectors over three years ago. Can you take the risk that Saddam is not developing nuclear weapons again? The horror of September 11 was great, but it was nothing compared to the potential devastation of a nuclear explosion.

Of course, you (Mr. or Ms. President) will first demand that inspections resume. You may even give a deadline. Will Saddam accede? Maybe, and then the crisis will end. Whew! But if he doesn’t, what will happen? I think the answer is obvious. It has nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with past grievances (Iraqi agents allegedly tried to assassinate George W. Bush’s dad when he was visiting Kuwait in 1993). It has nothing to do with the reports from Iraqi defectors (they could be lying). It has to do solely with the responsibilities of the U.S. President, as he (and many U.S. citizens) perceive them to be.

It is as predictable as the coming seasons, and as taxes. The U.S. is going to attack Iraq.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Every year, we look for promising technologies poised to have a real impact on the world. Here are the advances that we think matter most right now.

Scientists are finding signals of long covid in blood. They could lead to new treatments.

Faults in a certain part of the immune system might be at the root of some long covid cases, new research suggests.

AI for everything: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Generative AI tools like ChatGPT reached mass adoption in record time, and reset the course of an entire industry.

What’s next for AI in 2024

Our writers look at the four hot trends to watch out for this year

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.