US To Attack ROK?

This week, Undersecretary John Bolton will demand that the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency refer to the U.N. Security Council for possible punishment the "failure" of Iran to promptly disclose its production – during experiments conducted at Lashkar Ab’ad between October 2002 and January 2003 – of milligram quantities of enriched uranium.

Technically, all no-nuke signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are required to promptly make all their "nuclear materials" – which includes uranium, however much enriched, of whatever quantity – subject to an IAEA Safeguards Agreement.

This year, in the process of negotiating an Additional Protocol to their existing agreement, Iran not only told the IAEA about their attempts to enrich uranium via the Atomic Vapor Laser Isotope Separation process, but showed them the AVLIS equipment, which they have essentially junked.

What is AVLIS?

AVLIS was a top-secret high-tech candidate to replace the low-tech gaseous diffusion process, developed during WWII, by which all our enriched uranium – for power reactors or for nuclear weapons – was produced.

Uranium has to be "enriched" because only seven-tenths of one percent of the atoms contained in natural uranium are "fissile." Most power reactors require about 3 percent of those atoms to be fissile, and our uranium nukes require at least 90 percent.

So, in the gaseous diffusion process, uranium-hexaflouride gas under extremely high pressure is forced through hundreds and hundreds of virtually opaque filters – which are slightly less opaque to the smaller fissile atoms – the output from one filter being recompressed and used as input to the next.

It takes an enormous amount of electricity to run those compressors, so uranium-enrichment by gaseous diffusion is enormously expensive. In the rest of the world, most uranium is enriched by the gas-centrifuge process. In a gas centrifuge, the unwanted non-fissile atoms are almost literally "thrown" out. It still takes thousands of centrifuges – the output of one being the input for the next – to achieve the required enrichment, but the process requires about a tenth the electricity.

We spent more than $3 billion developing centrifuge technology, building and testing thousands of centrifuges. But we never built a commercial-scale gas-centrifuge plant.

But the Europeans did, and so did the Russians.

We’ve never really needed one. We haven’t produced any weapons-grade enriched uranium for many years. In fact, in 1998, all our uranium-enrichment facilities were turned over to the private sector U.S. Enrichment Corporation.

We intended to develop a commercial-scale Uranium-AVLIS process for USEC.

The AVLIS process exploits the small differences in energies between the characteristic excited states of different isotopes of the same atom. The energy output of a powerful pulsed laser can be precisely "tuned" so as to selectively ionize the U-235 isotope. The positively charged U-235 ions can then be electromagnetically separated from the other un-ionized uranium isotopes.

We spent billions developing the AVLIS technology, building a pilot-plant at Lawrence Livermore National Lab that operated more or less successfully for about 18 months. However, in 1999 the entire program was "suspended" because of "technological problems encountered during test runs of the pilot-plant," and estimates were it would take another $2.5 billion to build a commercial-scale plant for USEC that could not be ready for operation until 2007.

Many laboratories around the world have – or have had – AVLIS research programs, but there doesn’t seem to be – as yet – a commercial-scale competitor to the gas-centrifuge for uranium enrichment. There is some reason to believe the Russians have employed AVLIS-related technology to remove the unwanted plutonium isotopes from weapons-grade plutonium.

So, imagine how ecstatic Bolton was when the IAEA told him that Iran had told them they acquired an AVLIS system, had made milligram quantities of low-enriched uranium and hadn’t reported it at the time!

But then last week came the terrible news. The South Korean Science and Technology Ministry informed the IAEA that during the same time period, five South Korean scientists – all of whom received their doctorates in the United States – had also made milligram quantities of low-enriched uranium using high-power lasers and related equipment before relegating it to the scrap heap. They hadn’t told the IAEA because – like the Iranians – they didn’t think milligram quantities of LEU needed to be reported.

Now the IAEA Board will have to decide what to do about Iran and South Korea.

Oh well, if Bush has to treat South Korea the same way he intends to treat Iran, at least he won’t have to invade them. We already have 37,000 troops stationed there.

September 13, 2004

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts