The official in charge of Iran’s nuclear program recently revealed that his country had produced about 120 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium.
Previous reports said that Iran had raised the level of enrichment to 60%. Is Iran close to producing its first nuclear bomb? And how far is it still from that?
To answer these questions, it is necessary, before that, to look at how uranium is used in peaceful activities such as energy production, and for the production of nuclear weapons.
From “Yellowcake” to enriched uranium
Uranium, which is relatively abundant in nature, is essential for the development of various civil and military nuclear technologies.
The uranium atom exists in nature in two basic isotopes that differ only in the number of neutrons inside the nucleus, namely uranium 238, which represents 99% of this element in nature, while uranium 235 does not represent radioactive, which allows the nuclear fission reaction to occur only 0.7% of all isotopes of this element in nature .
This small percentage of the radioactive isotope of uranium does not allow it to be used as fuel in a nuclear power plant, so it is processed by increasing this percentage through a process called enrichment aimed at increasing the relative amount of uranium 235.
This process requires crushing uranium extracted from the mines and mixing it with different products to be in a more concentrated and easy to transport form called “Yellowcake”.
The most common method of enrichment is gaseous injection of uranium into a centrifuge. Since uranium-235 is lighter than uranium-238, the separation of the two isotopes can occur.
But in order for the concentration of the radioactive isotope to reach the desired level, the process must be repeated several times. That is why centrifuges are installed in series: the more gas passes through a greater number of successive centrifuges, the higher its concentration.
Iran and uranium enrichment
Power production reactors typically use uranium enriched to between 3 and 5% of uranium-235. While nuclear weapons typically require uranium enriched to 90% of this radioactive isotope.
From here we understand the importance of the issue of enrichment and the availability of the centrifuges needed for it, which was raised several times in the Iranian nuclear file, which seeks to increase its stock of enriched uranium while raising the degree of enrichment.
since last April, Iran has begun enriching uranium to a level of 60%, according to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security published last September. Some experts predict that it is actually producing 2.5 kilograms of uranium enriched to this level every month.
What separates Iran from the nuclear bomb?
Although a nuclear weapon normally requires 90% enriched uranium, a nuclear bomb can be made at much lower levels of only about 20%.
Scientists estimate that at least 170 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium is needed to make a bomb, which means that Iran currently possesses approximately 70% of the mass needed to produce this nuclear weapon, and it may only be a few months away from achieving this goal.
It also possesses, according to a report by the American Institute, approximately 10% of the 60% enriched uranium needed for a nuclear explosion, and it needs about a year and 4 months to make enough uranium enriched to this level to make its first nuclear weapon, if it wanted to.
It should be noted here as well as to what was mentioned in a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published last June, in which experts estimated the time required for Iran to obtain sufficient nuclear materials for the first nuclear weapon to be approximately 3 months, a period that is constantly decreasing , while increasing its ability to produce enough material for several warheads in a short time.
In sum, what the experts agree on is that Iran has already acquired the necessary experience and capabilities that entitle it to manufacture nuclear weapons, and that its first nuclear explosion is only a matter of time.