Good news: Iranian centrifuge breakthrough will speed progress towards bomb

Somehow the big news today isn’t this teeth-gnasher but Mike McConnell telling Congress that they coulda/shoulda done a better job of writing the NIE to stress that Iran is still on track to build a bomb. The weaponization program was indeed suspended in 2003, notes McConnell, but the enrichment process, which needs to be mastered before the material can be weaponized, continues apace. See-Dub flags his testimony here. Except … all of that was noted by the media when the NIE came out, including even on the NYT editorial page. December 5th:

[T]here’s also a lot of worrisome news in there that must not be overlooked.

First, the report says “with high confidence” that Iran did have a secret nuclear weapons program and that it stopped only after it got caught and was threatened with international punishment. Even now, Tehran’s scientists are working to master the skills to make nuclear fuel — the hardest part of building a weapon.

See also the quote from WaPo in my post on the same day. The feds could have done a better job spoonfeeding the information to the public (what else is new?) but it’s out there and the media didn’t ignore it.

Now, let’s make sure this isn’t ignored either. You want flaws in the NIE? You got it:

Iran has begun to deploy a new generation of machinery to produce nuclear fuel, a development bound to intensify a debate in Washington about whether a recent National Intelligence Estimate accurately portrayed Tehran’s progress toward the ability to build a nuclear weapon…

Experts said Iran’s design for the IR-2 centrifuge showed considerable technical creativity.

In an interview, a senior European nuclear official who monitors the Iranian program said the IR-2 was “more ingenious” than its predecessor, an unreliable machine called the P-1, with the “P” reflecting its Pakistani origins. The official insisted on anonymity because of the political delicacy of the issue.

A report released Thursday by the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said the Iranian-made machine was designed to be efficient and reliable.

The report said that if Iran could build 1,200 centrifuges of the new design, it could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in one year. Iran would need 3,000 of the current generation of machines to get the equivalent output. It has built that many, experts say, but has had difficulty keeping them running.

At the core of the new centrifuge design is a thin, tubelike rotor made of carbon fibers rather than maraging steel, a variety with great strength, the Institute’s report said. Iran has had difficulty making or buying strong maraging steel, largely because the West has stopped shipments headed to the country.

Like they say, the P1 is an old Pakistani model; Iran bought up a bunch of them on the nuclear black market, probably when A.Q. Khan was still in business. Because of that, there’s always been a question of how much they’re capable of building on their own versus how dependent they are on purchasing used equipment. Last year arms control wonk Jeffrey Lewis speculated that they couldn’t mass produce the maraging steel they need to build lots of centrifuges and thus were forced to make do with the steel they’ve been able to buy, enough (by his estimation) for 1,000-2,000 centrifuges. Problem solved: Now they have a centrifuge that doesn’t need it. And if they’re capable of improving the P1 to make it more than twice as efficient as it was, lord only knows what else they’ve figured out.

Ahmadinejad says his goal is 50,000 centrifuges within five years, which would make leave them able to process enough fuel for one bomb every few weeks. What’s the magic number now? 20,000? What’ll it be by the time President Obama takes office and starts working his hope/change fu on them?