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Friday, August 20, 2010

Greenwald Vs Goldberg vs Plutonium 240

I have been enjoying Glenn Greenwald's proof beyond reasonable doubt that one should never ever trust Jeffrey Goldberg. This reminds me of my 2 rules of blogging

1. Never argue with Glenn Greenwald
2. If you are really pissed with Glenn Greenwald, consult rule number 1.

I want to amplify on one point made by Jonathan Scwatz in the post cited by Greenwald.

Schwarz claims that, before the Israeli bombing of the Osirik reactor Iraq didn't have an active nuclear weapons development program. He cites as supporting evidence the claim by Harvard Prof. Richard Wilson that the reactor would not have been useful for such a program. I recall Wilson's article and, in particular, the words "Plutonium" and "isotopes."

Wilson's claim is that the reactor made the wrong mixture of isotopes of plutonium, so making a bomb with spent fuel would be about as difficult as making a bomb starting with unenriched Uranium. I thought the point was that the reactor was a preassurized light water reactor not a graphite mediated reactor. Now I know a bit more.

update 2: This post is not of purely historical interest. The newly fueled Iranian Bushehr reactor is a light water reactor (via Juan Cole) I believe it is generally agreed that light water reactors are not useful for making atomic bombs as argued below.

Off at Wikipedia there is the claim "Spent civilian power reactor fuel typically has under 70% Pu-239 and around 26% Pu-240, the rest being made up of other plutonium isotopes, making it extremely difficult but not impossible to use it for manufacturing nuclear weapons[citation needed]."

Well a Wikipedia article with [citation needed] sure isn't proof beyond reasonable doubt. However, this is an engineering question and journalists feel confident in their ability to judge it better than engineers and physicists.

Schwarz also cites the testimony of everyone in a position to know. yet somehow it is an accepted truthiness that Saddam Hussein was using the reactor to develope a bomb.

update: Welcome DeLong readers. I didn't expect anyone to read this post, but, since it is getting some visits, I will amplify. I think the key issue is the moderator for the reactor.

Some review: One of the challenges is making a nuclear reactor is that Uranium 238 absorbs neutrons and doesn't fission (it turns into Plutonium 239 instead). Uranium 238 absorbs only high energy neutrons, so reactors contain something called a moderater to slow neutrons down -- water, heavy water, graphite or molten sodium.

Some reactors are used to make plutonium 239 for bombs. These reactors are graphite mediated or heavy water mediated. One of them is in Yongbon in North Korea. The agreed framework for preventing the use of Yongbon for bomb making (negotiated by, among others, Clinton and Kim Jong Il and unilaterally repudiated by Bush) was to replace the Yonbon reactor with a light water mediated reactor built at foreign expense and to supply N. Korea with fuel oil while this reactor was being built. It was generally agreed (even by the Bush administration) that this would end the problem of using Plutonium from spent fuel to make bombs.

The Bush administration repudiated the agreement because, they argued, that N. Korea had just shifted to enriching Uranium to make bombs. Then they changed their intelligence analysis and decided that N Korea was not able to enrich uranium and not even trying. Notably it is very hard to enrich Uranium and, so, it is currently agreed that it is very hard to make a bomb if all you have is a light water mediated nuclear reactor and not a graphite mediated or heavy water nuclear reactor. The Bush administration did not challenge this claim made by the Clinton administration. I can neither present nor imagine stronger evidence that this is an agreed scientific fact.

The Osirak reactor was light water mediated.

It is an agreed truthy that, if it had not been bombed, it would have produced spent fuel which would have been used to make a bomb.

Note the name "Osirak" (I probably misspelled it as Osirik above somewhere). Wikipedia asked me if I was looking for "osiris" the Egyptian god who notably was killed and resurrected (the pieces were tied together -- he was the first mummy). Frenche nuclear scientists can resist puns and called their heavy water reactor "Osiris" because spent fuel could be reprocessed to new fuel (or bombs).

I suspect a bit of bait and switch in which a bomb seeking Iraqi dictator asked for a reactor just like the Osiris reactor and the Frenche supplied the similarly named but light water mediated Osirak reactor. Then Menachem Begin, fell for the trick too and had it bombed.

Notably, Begin was advised by scientists and engineers who knew all about making bombs from spent reactor fuel (from the Dimona heavy water moderated reactor). He is also the person who said "Abu Nidal Abu Shmidal a terrorist is a terrorist" and invaded Lebanon to retaliate for killings by terrorists based in Libya. Also he was behind in the polls and there was an election scheduled for two weeks later (which he won).

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