Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Iran's Uranium Enrichment: The Times Get it Wrong

In a piece called We've started to enrich uranium, Iran tells world
by Tom Baldwin in Washington and Bronwen Maddox, The Times get it horribly wrong.

The caption of a photograph leading the article reads:
A 4.5 kilogram [button] of enriched uranium: about five times this quantity is needed to make a nuclear bomb. Iran said yesterday that it was now successfully enriching uranium and had 'joined the nuclear club'

This is hopelessly disingenuous on two levels. Firstly, the degree of enrichment isn't mentioned, yet everything depends on it.

Enriched Uranium (EU) comes mainly in two varieties:

  • EU for energy production in civilian reactors: it contains typically between 3 and 5 w% of U235, the fissile Uranium isotope which makes the process of nuclear fission possible. The balance is made up of U238, a non-fissile Uranium isotope.

  • Highly enriched EU (HEU): containing at least 85 w% of the fissile isotope, for use in nuclear weapons

It's important to note that natural Uranium contains only about 0.7 w% of U235, hence the need to increase the concentration of the fissile isotope, a process referred to as enrichment.

The EU Iran paraded so proudly yesterday was of the civilian type:
two canisters were shown that presumably contain small amounts of Uranium hexa fluoride (aka hex, chemically UF6) enriched to about 3.5 w% of U235 (do click this link: it's a funny blogpost).

Whilst it's true that a nuclear weapon would need about 20 - 25 kg of EU, the required grade is the HEU type (> 85 w% U235), NOT the civilian 3.5 w% Iran is now starting to produce.

Secondly, the first impression the reader gets is that Iran now possesses 4.5 kg of 3.5w% EU but that wasn't stated and is unlikely: it would mean Iran's centrifuges have already enriched over 100 kg of natural Uranium to 3.5 w% EU, with only one cascade of an estimated 180 centrifuges (the photo above is of Urenco centrifuge cascade).

By the way, to produce 22.5 kg of HEU, Iran needs to enrich about 3 tonnes of natural Uranium. To do so in a reasonable amount of time, would require thousands and thousands more centrifuges, in cascade(s).

Are The Times also beating the drums of war?

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    At 9:38 PM, Blogger Sophia said...

    Of course the Times is beating the drum of war and even The Guardian which I respect so much have done that very early on.
    We live in a culture of uncritical thinking and media can make you believe any kind of story for if critical thinking existed there wouldn't be so much of all this 'manufacturing consent' in our democracies.
    And you can read my post on january 6, 2006

    At 1:42 PM, Blogger Gert said...

    Guardian link

    At 3:10 PM, Anonymous Longrider said...

    Sloppy reporting isn't confined to nuclear issues. However, "nuclear" presses so many emotive buttons that it becomes easy - so laziness abounds. They don't even have to say that Iran has weapons grade uranium, the right hints and people will draw the "right" conclusions all by themselves, because it's what they've been conditioned to want to believe.

    As Sophia points out, critical thinking is in short supply.

    At 3:20 PM, Blogger Gert said...

    It still begs the question: "Was it slop or was it spin?" I've left it in the middle but given the involvement of a Washingtonian journalist, I'm more inclined to the latter...

    At 4:21 PM, Blogger Media Mogul said...

    I am also inclined to say that it isn't sloppy journalism. I don't necessarily think it is spin either though. I think everyone is just looking for the sensational headline that will attract readers in the age of Google News. As in the Bloomberg article you commented on (on my site) - the information is there it is just pushed further down the article. The sensational stuff is used in the headline and to open the article. Hopefully with so many blogs and other sites picking up on the misinformation in the media it will be harder for the mainstream press to get away with it though.


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