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By Avner Cohen and Marvin Miller

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 47, No. 6

July/August 1991


The Gulf crisis stirred the old nightmare of a major Arab-Israeli war involving nuclear weapons. Two scenarios raised considerable concern in the United States and Israel last fall. The first was that Iraq might be able to construct and then confront the allied coalition with a nuclear weapon in a year or less. The second was that Israel might retaliate with nuclear weapons against an Iraqi chemical attack.

Neither nuclear nor chemical weapons were used during the war, and attentionis now focused on implementing U.N. Resolution 687, which calls for "the destruction, removal, and rendering harmless of all weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems in Iraq."

In late May, an international team of nuclear experts organized by theInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) completed its first post-war inspection of Iraq's declared stock of about 40 kilograms of safeguardedhighly enriched (weapons-usable) uranium. This material, which is incorporated into fuel elements for two small research reactors destroyed by allied bombing, was inspected at Iraq's main nuclear research center at Al Tuwaitha, just south of Baghdad. In accordance with Resolution 687, the team also inspected a site of suspected nuclear activity, not declared by Iraq.'*1 Press reports indicate that no other nuclear material was found, but the IAEA surely will make additional visits to other suspect sites to look for evidence of clandestine nuclear activity.

Such inspections and disclosures from other sources should make it possible to judge more accurately how close Iraq was, before the Gulf War, to making nuclear weapons. Although Iraq's nuclear program presumably has been destroyed, it is still important to get the facts straight and learn the appropriate lessons for the future. The article by David Albright and Mark Hibbs in the March BuIletin and an April paper by J. Carson Mark*2 make a significant contribution to dissipating the fog of expert opinion that surrounded this issue during the Gulf crisis.

Albright and Hibbs concluded, from their assessment of what is required to build nuclear weapons and of Iraq's ability to meet these requirements, that "Saddam Hussein was many years away from developing usable nuclear weapons." This judgment was based on the time required to build a "sizable arsenal that would present a meaningful threat to its enemies"-for which the crucial requirement is the production of weapons-grade uranium using gas centrifuges.

A nearer-term possibility was that Iraq might seize its stock of safeguarded uranium and use it to build a single nuclear device. Albright and Hibbs cited a reported U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that "Iraq could build such a device in six months to a year, and probably longer." But they noted that the estimate concluded that "the device would be too bulky to deliver by missile or even by aircraft, and might not even detonate."

We agree with Albright and Hibbs that those who preferred the war option had obvious incentives to give a worst-case spin to reports about Iraq' s nuclear activities. And we agree that some erroneous assessments were made because
of inaccurate information on what was required to make a bomb. However, in our view, Albright and Hibbs do not give sufficient weight to the many uncertainties about Iraq's indigenous expertise and the degree of nuclear assistance it had received before the embargo.

Such uncertainties were relevant to both the "near-term seizure" and the "sizable arsenal" scenarios. For the former, even a single, "crude" nuclear device could have posed a very serious threat in certain circumstances. A low-yield nuclear weapon detonated on Tel Aviv could have caused enormous destruction-and probably would have triggered swift nuclear retaliation. Although the probability of such a scenario becoming reality might have been small, no responsible Israeli or American policy-maker could have taken the threat lightly.

In our view, the uncertainties regarding Iraq's nuclear expertise were even more important in assessing the country's long-term nuclear prospects. How sure are we that the West German connection discussed by Albright and Hibbs was the only source of centrifuge technology, and that Iraq was not also working on other enrichment technologies?

There is ample evidence that Saddam Hussein made a major effort over the past 15 years to recruit and train large numbers of scientists and engineers to staff his nuclear and chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs.*3 The relevant technology is increasingly available. In the nuclear domain, much information about the production, fabrication, and behavior at high temperatures and pressures of materials such as uranium, plutonium, and berillium is now in the open literature. Continuing advances in such areas as computers, explosives, and precision machining make the task of reinventing nuclear weapons easier.

If it is not essential to minimize the weapon's size and weight and to predict its yield, the computational power available in today's personal computers should suffice to develop weapons of all levels of technical sophistication, including thermonuclear ones, with only minimal full- scale nuclear testing.*4 Relatively unsophisticated fission weapons might be stockpiled under such conditions without any nuclear testing, especially if a range of non-nuclear testing methods is available.

J. Carson Mark's discussion of unsophisticated weapons using enriched uranium provides valuable insights into the tradeoff involving the amount and the enrichment of uranium, the use of various neutron reflectors, and the weight of the weapon. Mark, a former director of the Theoretical Division at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, concludes that if beryllium metal is available, along with a neutron source to initiate the nuclear reaction and the technology to uniformly compress the combined uranium core and beryllium reflector, an unsophisticated implosion device of the type dropped on Nagasaki could be made using about 12 kilograms of weapons- grade uranium (93.5 percent uranium 235). According to Mark, such a device would weigh about a ton and would have an explosive yield of about 10 kilotons. A bomb of similar design, with a comparable weight and yield, could also be made from about 20 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium if natural uranium, instead of beryllium, was used as the reflector.

A Hiroshima gun-type weapon would be much easier to make, especially with weapons-grade uranium instead of the lower-enriched material available in August 1945, and a non-uranium reflector such as beryllium or tungsten carbide to minimize the possibility of pre-detonation. Mark estimates that a gun-type weapon using beryllium would require about 20 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium for a yield of several kilotons. If tungsten carbide is used, about 30 kilograms of uranium would be needed for a comparable yield.

These estimates should be compared to the approximately 12 kilograms of uranium enriched to 93.5 percent, and the 30 kilograms of uranium enriched to 80 percent, which Iraq has declared and the IAEA has now verified. Since some of the latter material has been irradiated in a reactor, it has an effective enrichment lower than 80 percent. Taking this into account, the total amount of 93.5 percent equivalent material is probably about 30 kilograms.

As to how deliverable a crude weapon might be, defense analyst Ted Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has pointed out that a World War II-vintage V-2 rocket, updated with 1960s technology, can travel more than 1,000 miles with a warhead payload of a ton. Modern ballistic missiles now deployed in the Middle East, such as the Israeli Jericho 11 and the version of the CSS2 the Chinese sold to Saudi Arabia, have an even greater range-to-payload capability. First- generation nuclear weapons can be delivered over great distances using 1960s-vintage ballistic missiles.

Iraq's nuclear infrastructure has been destroyed, but the uncertainties about it have implications for how the United States should deal with future renegade states who have nuclear ambitions. In particular, could Iraq have made, and used, nuclear weapons if the allied coalition had given sanctions--and Iraq--more time to work? And could the United States or Israel have effectively countered an Iraqi nuclear threat without recourse to nuclear weapons?

To be sure, the perception that Saddam Hussein's nuclear program posed an intolerable threat was stronger in Israel than in the United States, both before and during the crisis. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak reactor, fearing that its enriched uranium fuel or the plutonium it produced could have provided material for weapons. (During the Gulf War, 100 of 120 Knesset members signed a letter of appreciation to Menachem Begin for that earlier action.) During the 18 months that preceded the invasion of Kuwait, a renewed and increasingly tense Iraqi-Israeli dialogue took place over the rules of the nuclear game in the Middle East. Under the Begin Doctrine, Israel was committed to preventing any Arab state from going nuclear; Iraq was equally determined to develop its own bomb, despite the risk of a military showdown with down with Israel.

Nuclear weapons were an important part of Saddam Hussein's dream of establishing Iraq as the dominant Arab power, because the Iraqi dictator believed nuclear weapons provide the highest international stature. This view is intimately tied with his perception of Israel as an arrogant usurper that remains intransigent in the face of world opinion: it is Israel' s military superiority over the Arab states, symbolized by the bomb, that prevents the Arab states from changing the political status quo. Saddam asserted in 1981 that to counter Israel, the Arabs must have their own bomb, and the state that got it would achieve hegemony in the Arab world.*5

By early 1990, Israelis were worried that Iraq was getting closer to possessing nuclear weapons.*6 But stopping that process, in the manner of the 1981 attack on the Osirak reactor, would have been extremely difficult and could have led to a bloody war between Israel and Iraq. Saddam Hussein began issuing belligerent statements toward Israel-notably on April 2, when he threatened "to make fire burn half of Israel" if Israel attacked Iraq. The reference was to chemical weapons, but a showdown over nuclear weapons seemed only a matter of time.

President Bush and his close advisers seem to have believed from the earliest days of the Gulf crisis that Saddam Hussein had to be visibly confronted and humiliated. The feeling also grew that Iraq's military power, especially its actual chemical weapons and nuclear potential, would be difficult to defuse if Iraq simply withdrew from Kuwait. There were a number of reasons for confronting Saddam militarily sooner rather than later; one of them was to insure that the United States would not have to confront a nuclear-armed Iraq.

When the Iraqi Scud missile attacks began against Israel, a new risk arose-this time from the Israeli side of the equation. How would Israel retaliate if Scuds were launched with chemical munitions, causing heavy casualties? The perception that Israel might retaliate with unconventional weapons of its own, including nuclear weapons, may partly explain the quick transfer of U.S. Patriot missiles to Israel. This tangible demonstration of U.S. support was critical in keeping Israel out of the war.

The Iraqi nuclear threat has subsided, at least for now, and Israel' s nuclear capabilities remain in the basement. But this is no time to be complacent about nuclear risks in the Middle East. If there is no political settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Arab nations will continue to have an incentive to acquire nuclear weapons. With the relevant technologies continuing to spread, it is only a matter of time before they build such weapons- and the consequences will be unpredictable and possibly catastrophic. The Middle East cannot afford the luxury of going back to business as usual by not addressing the nuclear issue. Arms control, including confidence-building measures in the Nuclear field, must go hand-in-hand with the peace process.


*1 - R. Jeffrey Smith, "Inspectors Find Iraq's Nuclear Material," Washington Post, May 23, 1991, p. A46.

*2 - J. Carson Mark, "Some Remarks on Iraq's Possible Nuclear Weapons Capability in Light of Some of the Known Facts Concerning Nuclear Weapons" (Washington, D.C.: Nuclear Control Institute, April 1991).

*3 - See, for example, Adel Darwish and Gregory Alexander, Unholy Babylon (London: Victor Gollanez, 1991), pp. 102-03.

*4 - Richard K. Wallace, " Nuclear Weapons Computational Design Capabilities" (Los Alamos, N.M.: Applied Theoretical Physics Division, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sept. 1990).

*5 - "Iraq Asserts Arab Must Acquire Atom Arms as a Balance to Israel, " New York Times, June 24, 1981, p. A1; for the full text of Saddam Hussein' s
speech, see p. A10.

*6 - Special report, "Israel in the Gulf War," Ma'ariv, March 29,1991, pp. 1-11.


Reprinted by permission of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, copyright 2001 by the Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, 6042 South Kimbark, Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA. A one year subscription is $28.







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