Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly objects to the treaty that the Obama administration is making with Iran concerning its nuclear program. He has good reason to be alarmed. Here is why.
In order to enable atomic bombs, the 0.7 percent U235 fraction of natural uranium needs to be enriched to 10 percent or more. This is typically done using centrifuges, and the amount of effort required by such systems to accomplish a given amount of enrichment is measured in Separation Work Units, or SWUs. The table below shows the number of SWUs needed to refine an initial feedstock of 100 metric tons (100,000 kilograms) of 0.7 percent U235 natural uranium into smaller amounts of more enriched materials.
Under Obama’s proposed treaty, Iran will be allowed 6,500 centrifuges to enrich uranium from its natural level of 0.7 percent U235 to a reactor grade of 3 percent to 5 percent, but not to higher grades that would be useful for making bombs. However, we see that close to 80 percent of the total effort required to turn 0.7-percent-enriched natural uranium into 93-percent-enriched, top-quality bomb-grade material is spent on the first step, to 4-percent-enriched reactor grade stuff, which, as noted, the treaty will permit. Only the last 20 percent is forbidden.
Iranian centrifuges now have a capacity of 5 SWU per year each. The regime is working on upgrading this to 24 SWU each, a figure that would match American centrifuge performance. Even if we assume that they will remain unable to reach that goal, the 6,500 centrifuges permitted by the treaty will still give Iran a capacity of 32,500 SWU per year. Examining the table above, we see that while producing 17 bombs from 0.7-percent-enriched natural uranium would require a total of about 75,000 SWU, if the first step of enrichment to 4 percent has already been accomplished, then only 17,000 SWU would be required. Thus, after allowing creation of a large stockpile of 4 percent U235, the 32,500-SWU-per-year enrichment capability that the Obama treaty will grant Iran would allow it to transform that stockpile into first-class nuclear bombs at a rate of 32 per year.
We should note that the current cost of natural uranium is about $100 per kilogram, while the cost of one SWU is about $140. Therefore, if all Iran wanted was 4-percent-enriched reactor fuel, it could buy the 100,000 kilograms of natural uranium for $10 million, and have France or Russia enrich it for them at a cost of another $8 million, for a total price that is insignificant compared with the cost that current international sanctions are imposing on the country. It should therefore be clear that there is only one reason Iran needs the enrichment capability it is insisting on: so it can quickly turn reactor-grade material into a powerful nuclear arsenal.
That is why Netanyahu is alarmed by Obama’s treaty, and the rest of us should be, too.
— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, and the author of Energy Victory. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was recently published by Encounter Books.