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For Immediate Release
Friday, November 30, 1990


Paul Leventhal, President
Nuclear Control Institute

Presented to
Senate Armed Services Committee

November 30, 1990

Official and unofficial estimates that it would take Iraq at least six months and probably years to build an atomic bomb are dangerously ill-informed," according to Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute.

These estimates, Leventhal said, do not take into consideration that the time needed to convert the uranium-aluminium fuel that Iraq now possesses for a research reactor into pure uranium fuel for a bomb is only one to three weeks. These estimates also do not take into consideration evidence that Iraq has been designing and developing the non-nuclear components for nuclear weapons in advance of having the essential nuclear ingredients-highly enriched uranium or plutonium-ready to place in them. Finally, these estimates do not consider the plausibility of Iraq now acquiring or having already acquired substantial quantities of these weapons materials by clandestine means from poorly protected civil nuclear facilities in other countries-especially in western Europe and Japan-or even possibly from willing suppliers in the Third World.

"It is remarkable," Leventhal said, "that non-proliferation experts inside and outside the U.S. government have been so fast to trash President Bush's statements about Iraq's short-term nuclear potential as nothing more than political opportunism. It is ironic that when the White House finally wakes up to the long-neglected proliferation danger in Iraq, unnamed non- proliferation officials in the government, as well as former senior officials and independent experts, downplay the danger by suggesting that the President is merely playing to public concerns reflected in opinion polls."

Leventhal said that the new U.S. intelligence assessment, which apparently provides the basis for the President's concerns and for Defense Secretary Cheney's estimate of Iraq being as close as six months to a bomb, may itself be flawed.

"This U.S. assessment appears to contain a worst-case scenario of Iraq needing six months to build a bomb from the time it seizes the French-supplied research reactor fuel that is now under safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)," Leventhal said. Six months represents the time span between routine visits to Iraq by IAEA inspectors to make sure the fuel is still there, but the IAEA officially states-based on the advice it gets from an international team of safeguards experts- that the time needed to convert this reactor fuel into weapons fuel is only one to three weeks. If Iraq has the components of an implosion device-save the nuclear core-completed and ready to be assembled, Iraq could have a bomb within the one-to-three-week conversion time.

Iraq now has 12.3 kilograms (27 pounds) of 93%-enriched uranium contained in the uranium-aluminum fuel plates provided by France for use in the French-built Osirak research reactor. The fuel has been in storage near Baghdad ever since Israel destroyed the reactor with a bombing raid in 1981 before the reactor went into operation. This amount of highly enriched uranium is enough for at least one implosion device. An additional 18.7 kilograms (41 pounds) of 93%-enriched uranium would be needed for a crude gun-type device utilizing two critical masses of this material weighing a total of 31 kilograms (68 pounds). (This is the amount of 93%-enriched uranium that would be needed, utilizing a beryllium reflector. See attached analysis.)

There is ample evidence that Iraq is designing and building components of nuclear weapons, Leventhal said. A Congressional investigation disclosed that Iraq had received, by June 1989, 18 reports from U.S. national laboratories relating to the detonators and chemical explosives used in nuclear weapons. U.S. and British customs officials have stopped illegal exports of electronic capacitors and a vacuum furnace applicable to building nuclear weapons, but Saduam Hussein later displayed Iraqi capacitors (high-speed electronic triggers needed for an implosion device) based on an American capacitor that he suggested was smuggled successfully from the U.S.

"The bottom line question," Leventhal said, "is whether Iraq now has enough material to build nuclear weapons. If Iraq does it would be foolhardy to assume that it lacks the technical wherewithal to explode nuclear weapons with it. Only a year ago, U.S. experts were caught by surprise and expressed disbelief when Iraq claimed to have launched a three-stage rocket capable of carrying satellites into space, only to have to eat their words when U.S. intelligence confirmed the launch. We cannot afford to be caught off guard again, this time by Iraqi nuclear weapons.

"It is clear that Iraq has enough highly enriched uranium for one implosion device. What is not clear is whether it has obtained enough uranium or plutonium for a few or several such devices, or enough uranium for less sophisticated gun-type devices (which require more material but are easier to detonate). Expert assessments have focused almost exclusively on Iraq's nascent industrial capacity to produce its own bomb material-a capacity that apparently has not grown sufficiently to produce such material in quantities needed for weapons. These assessments have ignored the possibility that Iraq could use or may already have used its highly sophisticated clandestine purchasing networks, or its terrorist surrogates, to obtain bomb-grade uranium and plutonium from abroad.

"If inueed there is no evidence of diversions of nuclear bomb materials to Iraq, this does not mean such diversions have not occurred-only that none has been detected. By definition, a successful diversion of plutonium or highly enriched uranium from an IAEA-safeguaraea nuclear facility is one that goes undetected.

"The Achilles heel of the global non-proliferation regime is the legitimate place that bomb-grade uranium and plutonium have been given in civilian nuclear programs despite the inadequacy of international safeguards and national protective measures on this material.

"Because of measurement uncertainties, hundreds of kilograms of plutonium are 'unaccounted for' in large civilian nuclear fuel facilities each year, but always the IAEA determines, in the absence of evidence of a diversion, that none of the unaccountea- for material has been diverted. The materials accounting measures used by IAEA inspectors are supposed to detect the loss of one weapons quantity of plutonium-8 kilograms (17.6 pounds)-in a year, but the IAEA admits that it cannot meet its own detection goal in large plutonium plants. The best it can do in meeting its own goal of a 95% confidence level of detection and only a 5% probability of a false alarm is to detect a loss of about 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of plutonium a year in such a plant. Any loss less than that could go undetected.

"Thus, the undetected loss of a very small percentage of the total inventory of plutonium in a major industrial state like France, Germany or Japan-where plutonium is processes and stored in multi-ton quantities-would represent a very substantial amount of bomb material for Saddam Hussein. It is by no means implausible that a plant worker or manager, acting under duress or by reason of bribery or ideology, could successfully remove substantial quantities of plutonium from a safeguarded plant into the hands of an Iraqi agent.

"A number of civilian facilities, known as critical assemblies, contain large amounts of pure plutonium and highly enriched uranium in metallic form-the ideal material for nuclear weapons that, according to the IAEA, can be converted into weapons components in as little as 7 to 10 days. The material is often stored in the form of many thousands of foil-thin metal coupons, which present IAEA inspectors with a materials-accounting nightmare.

"At one such facility, the fast critical assembly in Japan, there are some 325 kilograms (715 pounds) of plutonium metal and 180 kilograms (396 pounds) of 93%-enriched uranium metal acquired from the U.S. defense program for breeder fuel experiments. A few years ago, U.S. inspectors became so alarmed by lax physical protection measures at the facility that the Sandia National Laboratory was called upon to develop a crash improvement program.

"Beyond the possibility of undetected diversions of bomb material to Iraq from civil nuclear programs in Europe and Japan, there is also the possibility that Third World countries with advanced nuclear programs-such as China and Pakistan-might have supplied highly enriched uranium to Iraq. Such friendly clandestine transfers would be more likely to be detected by intelligence methods, however."

Leventhal said present assessments of Iraq's nuclear potential "reflect the dangerous tendency to 'mirror-image' the adversary-that is, to assume that he will act the way we act. In this case, the assumption is that he will not have nuclear weapons until he has done what we and every other weapon state have done: build an industry to produce the needed material. Thus, too much emphasis has been placed on analyzing how far Iraq has gone in importing essential industrial materials and components and building the gas centrifuges of a uranium enrichment plant; too little emphasis has been placed on the possibility that Iraqi agents have acquired bomb materials undetected from abroad."

"In this regard," Leventhal said, "present assessments of Iraq's nuclear weapons potential are dangerously ill-informed."

Short of military intervention now being considered by the Bush Administration, Leventhal proposed a number of remedial measures:

First, the frequency of IAEA inspections in Iraq should be increased to coincide with the conversion time of the highly enriched uranium fueled hat is, inspections should take place weekly, or at least once every three weeks, to verify that the material has not been removed from safeguards for use in a bomb.

Second, the IAEA should exercise its "special inspections" safeguards authority to seek out and enter facilities where fissionable material might be located.

Third, all civilian nuclear facilities in the world possessing weapons quantities of plutonium and highly enriched uranium should be placed on special alert, and extraordinary measures should be taken to protect against diversions.

Fourth, Iraq, now a party in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, should be condemned in a resolution signed by the 140 other parties to the Treaty for its blatant disregard of its pledge not to seek or to develop nuclear weapons.


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