Continued suspicions that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear
weapon and complications over a U.S.-India deal to share nuclear
technology have raised concerns over how easily a country with
a nuclear program meant for peaceful purposes might move toward
making weapons for military use.
"The technologies are the same," according to Jeffrey Lewis,
executive director of the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard,
making it relatively easy once a country has the enrichment know-how
to steer it toward a military effort.
But difficulties obtaining that knowledge, harnessing it into
a successful program and bypassing international treaties that
monitor countries' nuclear activities stand in the way of a nation
with nuclear weapons ambitions.
"If you have a civilian nuclear program with enrichment
and reprocessing facilities, you can have a military program,"
said Wade Boese, research director at the Arms Control Association
in Washington, D.C. But according to Boese, the largest hurdle
in acquiring a nuclear weapon is obtaining the radioactive fuel
for fission, often referred to as fissile material.
Enrichment and reprocessing
A civilian nuclear program can use a nuclear reactor for many
purposes, but in most cases it is used to generate energy for
electricity. As part of its spent fuel, the reactor produces nuclear
waste uranium or plutonium that, when enriched to high levels,
can be used to fuel a bomb.
"The civilian versus military is kind of what comes out
at the end -- bombs or energy," said Boese. "The key
element in that is whether a country has enrichment and reprocessing
facilities. And if they have those, then they have the ability
to make fissile materials."
Thirty-one countries around the world have fuel reactors, according
to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Other countries that don't have reactors but seek nuclear technology
must develop it themselves, get it on the international black
market or acquire it through legal international deals, such as
the March 2006 U.S.-India deal.
The agreement, which hit snags during technical negotiations
in early 2007, grants India access to American nuclear fuel for
its civilian program. In return, India agrees to separate its
civilian and military nuclear programs and place 14 civilian plants
under international inspections while keeping eight military sites
The U.S.-India deal is rare, however, and much of the international
controls and diplomatic methods for slowing the spread of nuclear
technology and weapons have focused on limiting uranium enrichment
and reprocessing efforts.
Despite these efforts, in April 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad announced his country had successfully enriched uranium
to the level necessary for generating electricity, a major feat
for the country of 70 million. Iran insists it only wants the
ability to enrich uranium for peaceful energy, but members of
the United Nations, suspicious of Iran's intentions, imposed sanctions
in late 2006 and set a deadline of May 2007 for the country to
stop uranium production.
Weeks before the deadline, however, Ahmadinejad said his country
had expanded its nuclear program and had begun enriching uranium
"on an industrial scale," escalating fears that the
program was not for civilian purposes as claimed.
Countries also can buy nuclear technology for military programs
on the black market. In 2004, Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan admitted
to selling nuclear materials including uranium enrichment equipment
to several countries considered enemies of the United States.
Once a country can develop enriched uranium or plutonium for
the production of energy, developing it into weapons-grade quality
is the next hurdle. Most programs use a centrifuge system, a series
of devices that spin substances at high speeds to separate the
elements. In the case of uranium, the centrifuge separates the
fissile isotopes and the byproduct is weapons-grade uranium, or
highly enriched uranium, enriched to levels above 90 percent purity.
Plutonium, a more difficult substance to produce, must be reprocessed
or separated from reactor fuel.
"The reprocessing applies to the extraction of plutonium
from the spent fuel. You're separating the spent fuel that a reactor
produces and you separate it out through chemical processes --
the plutonium and uranium from the other chemicals -- and then
you could use the plutonium to make the weapons. The plutonium
is the fissile material that is used to make a weapon," according
To enrich enough uranium for electricity or the core of a bomb,
centrifuges must be calibrated and spun for long periods.
Iran claims to have started more than 1,300 centrifuges as of
April 2007 and aims to have 3,000 by the end of May. With 3,000
operating centrifuges, the International Institute for Strategic
Studies predicted it would take nine to 11 months to produce enough
highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. Iran's ultimate goal
is 54,000 operating centrifuges.
Administration officials and nuclear analysts differ on how long
it could take Iran to create a weapon. Estimates range anywhere
from five years to over a decade. Mohamed ElBaradei, the International
Atomic Energy Agency's director, and John Negroponte, the former
director of U.S. national intelligence, have both said that Iran
is perhaps four years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon.
But Iran has yet to prove that it can master the technology to
run the centrifuges for extended periods of time. "They are
very sensitive machines." said Boese. "Mastering that
technology is very, very difficult."
Lewis agrees. He points to major areas in the developmental stages
of design and implementation that could go wrong, slowing a country's
progress toward a weapon.
"Several obstacles [to development] might exist, including
impurities in the feed material or engineering challenges associated
with operating a large number of cascades together," he said.
Housing bomb-making facilities
In addition to developing the technology and materials necessary
to generate weapons-grade uranium or plutonium, a country seeking
weapons capability would need to have the infrastructure in place
to do the research, perform the necessary enrichment and build
the bomb. Because the IAEA monitors and inspects nuclear facilities
around the world, a country with weapons aspirations would have
to hide its development in secret facilities.
And it is the IAEA's mixed record in ferreting out these hidden
efforts that have worried many in Western intelligence communities.
"The concern people have about proliferators is if they
can use the knowledge in their legitimate facilities, that they
can use that in secret facilities," Boese said.
This is where IAEA begins to play a role, according to Boese.
"For countries to be eligible for nuclear commerce, they
must open up their facilities to safeguards, which are international
mechanisms that are designed to detect and deter the misuse of
civilian materials for weapons purposes," he said. "That's
what in theory prevents a civilian facility itself from being
used for weapons production."
Presumably all peaceful facilities around the world are dedicated
to energy production or research purposes, with the exception
of the nuclear weapons states -- the United States, China, Russia,
France and Britain, countries that already have weapons.
But some nations either suspected of possessing nuclear weapons,
or known to, have held IAEA inspectors at bay.
"India and Pakistan have a very small number that are open
to IAEA inspections," Boese said. "But the majority
of their nuclear apparatuses, the complex is off-limits."
Israel also is also off-limits to inspectors. "They do not
let anybody in," Boese said.
The final stage of building a weapon is the actual construction
of the bomb, which most analysts agree is the easiest stage.
In the most famous example, in the 1960s, the U.S. government
hired three post-doctoral physicists in their 20s to design a
nuclear bomb using no classified material and only what was publicly
available. The three men -- Dave Dobson, David Pipkorn and Bob
Selden -- were able to design the bomb in less than two years.