POLITICO does a little fear-mongering.
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For somebody who spends hours every day reading news, I very rarely read POLITICO and mostly that's when they happen to break an important story that’s in some way relevant to this newsletter. But it’s a major news source among DC types, and a lot of that has to do with its morning newsletters on various topics, like defense news. You or I may not be interested in POLITICO's “Morning Defense” newsletter, and in fact we may find the idea of POLITICO's “Morning Defense” newsletter being “Presented by Northrop Grumman” (I wish I were kidding) kind of repugnant. But a lot of people don't, and the newsletter appeals to the kind of folks who want to know which contractor will be building our next $1.5 trillion military thing that doesn't work, or where the United States might bomb/sanction/invade next.
If you check it out right now, today's “Morning Defense Presented by Northrop Grumman” newsletter starts off with its “Quick Fix” section (the people who read POLITICO love bullet points) like so:
— Tehran is resuming enriching uranium after President Donald Trump ordered an aircraft carrier to stay put in the region.
— Legislation authorizing low-interest loans for Eastern European allies seeking U.S. weapons awaits Trump’s signature.
— The Pentagon is giving contractors more access to “special-access programs” to help spur innovation.
That first Fix is a little sloppily written—the Iranians were already enriching uranium, but they’ve resumed enriching it to the 20 percent level in their latest response to the US breach of the 2015 nuclear deal—but that’s nitpicking, really. The problem, unfortunately, is that when the newsletter went out this morning it read very differently:
Oh shit! Bomb-grade? That’s much worse! It’s also deeply misleading. “Bomb-grade” is not really a technical term, so I guess there’s some room to fudge a little, but weapons-grade uranium is generally recognized as anything above 90% enriched. That's not a hard line. “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima, used a mix of uranium enriched to various levels that averaged around 80 percent, but as these things go “Little Boy” was a pretty inefficient device and, for better or worse (it’s worse), nuclear weapons technology has advanced quite a bit since then.
(“Enriched” uranium, by the way, is uranium that’s had its proportion of the volatile U-235 isotope increased artificially, through the use of centrifuges. The vast majority of naturally occurring uranium is of the U-238 variety, which is not fissile, so in order to make nuclear fuel for most types of reactors and for uranium-fueled weapons it’s necessary to increase the percentage of U-235, which is fissile, in the mix. There are certain kinds of reactors, like “heavy water” devices, that can use natural uranium as fuel, but most reactor designs require low enriched uranium, generally in the three to five percent range. I am not a nuclear scientist so if this explanation seems intentionally vague it’s because that’s the best I can do.)
If the Iranians were enriching uranium to 80 percent then you could, I guess, call that “bomb-grade,” though I would still say you were playing loose with the facts. But applying that term to 20 percent enriched uranium means you’re bullshitting people. The team behind the “Morning Defense Presented by Northrop Grumman” eventually corrected the text (though without, as far as I can tell, acknowledging the correction), but you know how they say nobody ever reads the corrections? That's true when it comes to newspapers and it’s even more true when it comes to newsletters. The inaccurate lede is what subscribers saw in their inboxes this morning, and the vast majority of them will never even think to go to the “Morning Defense Presented by Northrop Grumman” website to see if what's there is different from what they received. As somebody who, believe it or not, occasionally makes some mistakes in this newsletter and then agonizes about how to deal with fixing them, this is a dynamic with which I am very familiar.
Later on in the “Morning Defense Presented by Northrop Grumman” newsletter, and this part is still there, you can read a more weaselly rewording of the lede:
The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran had resumed enrichment of uranium-235 to 20 percent, which is suitable for a nuclear bomb. That is a level not seen since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was reached among the U.S., Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K.
“Suitable for a nuclear bomb” is an impressive bit of garbage writing. The most common use for 20 percent enriched uranium is in research reactors, the kind of facility that might produce radioisotopes for a variety of uses (medical, for example) and/or provide a place for nuclear scientists to conduct, well, research. Is it “suitable for a nuclear bomb”? I mean, I guess technically it is. You could load up a warhead with 20 percent enriched uranium and see what happens. You could load up a warhead with anything you wanted, in theory, for shits and giggles. Use low enriched uranium. Or natural uranium. Or those little green plastic army men toys. But as to whether you should expect a nuclear explosion from a warhead thus outfitted is another question entirely.
A bomb using 20 percent enriched uranium might generate a chain reaction and explosion, but I’d say the chances of success would not be good and there’s no conceivable reason why any country, including Iran, would risk a preemptive US strike in order to build a bomb that most likely wouldn’t work. It is conceivable to build a bomb using 20 percent enriched uranium that would be guaranteed to achieve a chain reaction, but you would need to pack it with so much uranium that it would be impossible to move, much less mount on the end of a missile and expect that missile to be able to fly anywhere. So calling 20 percent enriched uranium “suitable for a nuclear bomb,” with all the vivid imagery the “Morning Defense Presented by Northrop Grumman” folks surely knew that would generate in the minds of their readers, is, dare I say, irresponsible. Bomb-grade journalism, to borrow a term.
Now, I don’t want to end this on my own misleading note so I should conclude by saying that Iran’s decision to enrich to 20 percent, while driven by a lot of internal political pressure and still only a response to the US decision to scrap the 2015 accord a couple of years ago, is nevertheless a troubling development. The reason is not because the Iranians are suddenly going to build a massive bomb with their 20 percent enriched uranium, but because by enriching to 20 percent they'll be bringing themselves very close to weapons-grade levels in terms of the amount of centrifuge effort required to get there:
Gharibabadi @GharibabadiThe IAEA DG reported today that upon provision of an updated DIQ for Fordow, the Agency carried out a DIV at the Site and confirmed that a cylinder containing 137.2 kg of uranium up to 4.1% has been connected to the feeding line and production of UF6 enriched up to 20% started.
So it’s not like Iran's move to ratchet up its enrichment activity isn’t alarming. It’s just not as alarming as the readers of the “Morning Defense Presented by Northrop Grumman” newsletter now probably believe it to be.