Iranian progress towards nuclear fuel processing seems to have everyone twittered. Recently on NPR a guest raised the question as to whether or not Iran has enough reactor capacity to consume the potential output of their nascent uranium enrichment program.  Good question.

The refinement of fissile materials offers hazards that are poorly understood outside the actinide community.  One of them is the “criticality” hazard.  In the US nuclear program, there have been a few criticality events leading to heavy radiation dosages and even death in a few cases, i.e., Louis Slotin.  Slotin’s case is unusual in that he was manipulating a subcritical bomb assembly rather than a uranium solution. A recent example is the criticality event at Tokai-mura.  According to the literature, numerous elements (in addition to beryllium) absorb alpha’s and then emit neutrons.

One wonders if the Iranians have the infrastructure to safely perform this activity.  A nuclear state needs a health physics community, sensitive and accurate radiation detection systems, and the ability to handle hazardous radioactive materials that are chemical hazards as well. Then there is the matter of what to do with high level rad waste.  The US is still struggling with its rad waste inventory generations after the Manhattan project began.  Who knows, maybe NIMBY isn’t an issue in modern Persia.

Nuclear weapons seem so secular for hyperorthodox nations. But these things do capture the fancy of many people- even followers of the worlds major Iron Age religions. Among scientists, the explosive runaway potential was considered not long after it was discovered that nuclear fission released two neutrons per fission.  The human brain seems constructed to find extrema.

I wonder how the Iranians will validate their weapon’s design? I assume their program is not an ab initio project.  No doubt they have culled design information from somewhere (Pakistan?).  Eventually they have to assemble their weapon and tighten the wingnuts on the casing.  But how will they know if it has enough thump?  Will they be able to resist performing a test shot?  Israel, to its credit, has not performed a test of theirs, though I have no doubt that considerable super computer time has been dedicated to validating their design.

How will these sons of Xerxes construct the chain of command for the release of nuclear weapons?  What kind of fail-safe mechanisms will they put into place to safeguard against inadvertant or unauthorized arming and detonation? Even martyrs have to be careful.

Nuclear weapons have their military uses, but they are primarily a political amplifier used by states to project their voice on the world stage.  But what happens when a religion gets hold of nuclear weapons?  Clearly, the Islamic Republic of Iran is interested in more than mere self defense.  They seem compelled to promulgate standards and doctrines given to them in the form of revealed truth.  A nuclear weapon is as much about prestige and credibility as firepower. 

The Iranians are very pragmatic people.  They know that the US can easily rain nuclear destruction on them and then bounce the rubble a few times for good measure.  They’ll use the bulk of the uranium for electrical power generation.  But they’ll be sure to use a part of it for politcal power generation.