… and no, Iran is not close to having a nuclear weapon.
Hiring technically untrained reporters to cover technically complex topics leads to risible journalism.
Here’s Politico’s Jen DiMascio:
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff aren’t on the same page regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Iran may have enough nuclear material to make a bomb, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.
Adm. Michael Mullen, told CNN host John King Iran is close.
“And Iran having a nuclear weapon I’ve believed for a long time is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world.”
King had asked Mullen about a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that suggested previous evaluations about Iran’s nuclear capability were wrong.
But on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Gates said the opposite.
“They’re not close to a stockpile. They’re not close to a weapon at this point,” he said.
As it turns out, both Gates and Mullen might be right.
The full extent of Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons is a matter of debate.
Even if Iran may have enough uranium to make a bomb, it will still face significant technical challenges to reaching that goal — including producing enough nuclear fuel.
I defy anyone who doesn’t already know what’s going on to figure it out from that story.
As it happens, in my mis-spent youth I worked on nuclear-power issues on Capitol Hill, and (though I have no relevant training) sat and listened to experts until I more or less understood some of the engineering. So here goes:
Natural uranium is 0.7% U-235, which is the stuff that sustains the chain reaction. Weapons-grade uranium, also called “high-enriched uranium” (“HEU”) or “fissile,” is about 90% U-235, though it’s possible to make a crude bomb with material refined to as low as 20%. Low-enriched (“fissionable”) uranium (“LEU”), suitable for reactors, runs about 3.5%.
The higher the concentration already is, the more work is required to make it higher still. The engineers have a measure called the SWU (pronounced “swoo”). It takes about 6000 SWU to make enough fissile uranium for a bomb. Of that, the step from natural uranium to LEU is about 100 SWU, while going from reactor-grade to weapons-grade requires the rest. (No, I don’t keep these numbers in my head; they’re from Globalsecurity.org.)
So if Iran has generated enough LEU to make a bomb with, it’s about a sixtieth of the way to having enough HEU for a bomb. (Then comes the fancy machining.)
So Gates and Mullen are “both right” only in the sense that they agree that Iran seems to have enough LEU for a bomb, which means that they’ve solved the problem of getting the natural uranium. But Mullen (and friends) are trying to use that fact to scare the ignorant; Gates is acting like a grown-up.
The conventions of American journalism make the journalist the neutral arbiter between competing sides; it would be wrong for a journalist to pick a side of his own. But that means that a journalist in an expertise-intensive field can’t do what his or her readers need done: call an actual expert, get the basic lesson, and report the results.