The warhawks who had been demanding we use Sept. 11 as an excuse to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein have changed their tune. Now they are demanding that we use Saddam’s refusal to allow UN inspectors back in Iraq as an excuse to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein.
Lately, the warhawks have been parading around a 1996 Iraqi defector named Khidhir Hamza. Hamza claims that after the Israelis bombed the Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981, the Iraqis set out to build 400 uranium-235 enrichment facilities, disguised as farmhouses. The warhawks claim that Saddam threw the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors out in December 1998 so they wouldn’t find all those farmhouses. They claim that if Saddam doesn’t let the IAEA back in then, under UN Resolution 687, we have the right to go in and destroy all those farmhouses.
Well, almost all of that is wrong. UN Resolution 687 doesn’t give them that right. And the IAEA inspectors – responsible for seeing to it that signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty don’t develop nukes on their own – were in Iraq in January of 2001, saw everything they asked to see, and reported back that Iraq was in full compliance with its obligations as an NPT signatory.
To make an unsophisticated nuke, you need maybe 50 Kg of uranium-235. At the time of the Gulf War, Iraq had 12.3 kilograms of 93 percent uranium-235, contained in fuel supplied by the French for the Osiraq research reactor, but never used, since the Israelis destroyed the Osiraq reactor in 1981, just before it was to begin operation. The IAEA verified as recently as January of this year that the fuel was intact and that Iraqis had not extracted any of the uranium-235. Furthermore, they looked for – and didn’t find – any uranium-235 enrichment activities.
Now, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, much to their surprise, the IAEA inspectors did find near Tarmiya the ruins of a large building – with an associated 100 MWe power plant – that was intended to house 70 first-stage and another – with an associated 40 MWe power plant – that was to house 20 second-stage calutrons. Nearby, there were large chemical-processing plants and associated cooling towers. A similar complex was under construction elsewhere in Iraq. However, when destroyed, neither complex was yet operational, and Iraq may never have been able to produce the tens of kilograms of uranium-235 needed to make a nuke. It is estimated that Saddam spent more than $8 billion on the calutron program that was utterly destroyed in the Gulf War.
A calutron is essentially a modified cyclotron – a metal vacuum chamber about six feet in diameter inserted between poles of electro-magnets, which are also about six feet in diameter. The uranium-235 used in our first few nukes was produced by calutrons. We had more than 1,600 of them operating for a short time at Oak Ridge. Partial enrichment of uranium is achieved in the large first-stage, and higher enrichment is achieved in a separate second-stage calutron, which is about half the size.
In operation, less than 10 percent of the uranium winds up on the small “collectors” – the rest getting plated out on the inside of the vacuum chamber. So, after about a month of operation, a calutron is usually shut down, disassembled and the 90 percent that didn’t make it to collectors is chemically recovered. Calutrons were terribly messy, inefficient and expensive to build and operate and very energy intensive. So, as soon as gaseous diffusion cascades began operating at Oak Ridge in 1945, all of the calutrons were shut down. A few calutrons have since been built and operated in a number of Western countries, but for isotope separation – not for enriching uranium
So, there was nothing secret about calutrons, nor were there any export restrictions on the materials or components needed to build one. According to post-Gulf War reports by the IAEA, after the Israelis bombed Osiraq in 1981, the Iraqis just went out and bought what they needed. By 1986, they had a research calutron operating at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center near Baghdad. By 1990, they had eight calutrons operating – but not very well – at the Tarmiya complex. These developmental calutrons had been shut down for modifications when the Gulf War broke out.
Now, back to the warhawks and their defector, Khidhir Hamza. Since the Gulf War, could the Iraqis have secretly built 400 calutrons, disguised as farmhouses? Well, perhaps, but they would be easy for the IAEA inspectors to spot. You see, each farm would also have on it a one to two megawatt oil-fired power plant, complete with oil storage tanks, a cooling pond and/or cooling towers.