Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed last week that new second-generation centrifuges, which Iran plans to start up at its Natanz uranium enrichment facility, could cut by a third the time needed to create a nuclear bomb – underlining his deadline of this summer to take military action against Iran.
Netanyahu’s prediction, however, appears to be based on some unsubstantiated assumptions regarding Iranian intentions and capabilities. Yet it can provide ammunition to the hawks in Washington and Jerusalem, who could rush us into another needless and counterproductive war in the Middle East. Netanyahu’s assertions do not stand up to technical scrutiny.
Critically, he does not mention that Iran has been converting part of its 20-percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride gaseous stockpile into metallic form, for use as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. This conversion essentially freezes the enrichment level and subtracts from the “enrichable” gaseous stockpile used in centrifuges. It is not something that a nation hell-bent on weaponization would do.
Neglecting this fact in coming up with a hypothetical “time line to a bomb” is like balancing your bank account by registering just your income – but failing to subtract the amounts of the checks you’ve written.
Basically, whatever amount is converted to metal oxide form is not easily available for further enrichment to weapons-grade uranium, even if Iran decided to launch a weaponization effort in the future. Reconversion back to gaseous form is difficult and time-consuming and a major roadblock if a country intends to “race to the bomb.”