Memo To: British Prime Minister Tony Blair
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Yellowcake and Uranium
I’m sorry to say, Mr. Prime Minister, that your difficulties with Parliament on the “yellowcake” issue are not going to end unless to get better intelligence than you have. I watched you yesterday in a CNN report which said you are still insisting British intelligence was correct in warning of Iraq’s eagerness to import yellowcake (uranium oxide) from Niger in order to restart its nuclear weapons program. Having watched all the James Bond films several times over, I had come to assume that you would have someone of his caliber at hand to explain the difference between uranium as fissile material and yellowcake. It surprised me, then, when you told the House of Commons yesterday that in the 1980’s, Iraq had actually imported 270 tons of “uranium” from Niger, when in fact it had imported 270 tons of “yellowcake.” There is a big difference, as I have learned by consulting my personal “M,” Dr. Gordon Prather, a nuclear physicist who had been a nuclear weapons designer in his youth and was the U.S. army’s chief scientist in the Reagan administration. Here is what he told me:
"Jude, to 'enrich' uranium isotope 235, you take yellowcake, and from it you make uranium hexaflouride, you gasify it and run it under pressure through either [a] thousands of ceramic semipermeable membranes [gaseous diffusion] in cascade or [b] thousands of high speed gas centrifuges in cascade. The idea is to concentrate all the U235 atoms that were scattered uniformly throughout tons of yellowcake into a mass weighing only a few pounds. The percentage of U235 atoms in yellowcake is less than 0.3%. The percentage of U235 atoms in somewhat concentrated low-enriched Uranium is 3-5%. Anything above 30% is considered highly-enriched uranium [HEU]. We use 93%+ HEU in our nukes and the Russians reportedly use 97% HEU.
"Virtually all our HEU was made by gaseous diffusion. Much of the Russian HEU was made in gas centrifuges. We have never built or operated a commercial-scale gas-centrifuge uranium enrichment plant. The Iraqis used the stone-age electromagnetic isotope separation [EMIS] system and never got above 20% HEU and they only made gram-quantities -- not the 20-30 kilograms required for an implosion-type nuke -- of that. One of the advantages of gas-centrifuge system is that it takes about a tenth the power required for the gas diffusion or EMIS systems. We built our gaseous diffusion plants at Oak Ridge because of TVA -- lots of cheap electric power. The EMIS system the Iraqis tried to use also uses lots of electric power. The real obstacle to developing your own nukes is producing sufficient fissile material -- either U235 or Pu239 -- and it is a monumental task. Monumental."
What Dr. Prather is saying here is that Iraq totally failed in the 1980s in its attempt to build even one nuclear bomb our of that 270 tons of yellowcake. It would have had to squeeze several hundred pounds of 93% U235 to make one bomb and it only managed less than a kilogram of 20% U235. That’s why, after spending several billion dollars on the effort, Saddam Hussein threw in the towel, even before the Gulf War. Sure there are Iraqi nuclear scientists still around with scientific papers on how to make a nuke, but it is one thing to have something on paper, another to squeeze hundreds of pounds of highly enriched uranium out of hundreds of tons of yellowcake.
Dr. Prather further points out that the process of getting several hundred pounds of U 235 out of yellowcake could not be hidden in a mobile van: “You need to be able to convert yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride -- a solid at room temperature. Then you need to gasify UF6 and run it through cascades of gas centrifuges, tens of thousands of them. Iraq never had the capability of producing kilogram amounts of HEU, and what capability they had was utterly destroyed during the Gulf War and its aftermath and never rebuilt.”
In other words, Mr. Prime Minister, before seeking more 'yellowcake' from Niger -- or anywhere else -- Saddam would have had to order his nuclear scientists and engineers to somehow acquire tens of thousands of gas centrifuges that could be linked up in series so the UF6 could cascade through them. Such a facility would necessarily have to cover several acres of ground, Dr. Prather tells me, with massive power lines coming in that to run the centrifuges. U.S. spy satellites that can locate a mobile van from several miles up could not miss a plant meant for production of U 235. Do you see? This is why Dr. Mohammed Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had been so confident that your intelligence sources were most likely in error, even before he found that the six letters on which you based your judgment were forged. The former UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, has been making this same argument for more than a year, but nobody in the Bush administration or the Central Intelligence Agency paid him any mind.
I asked Dr. Prather how the CIA or the Defense Intelligence Agency could have been so dense as to not realized this problem. He told me there is NOBODY he knows of who works for the CIA or the DIA or any of the other intelligence agencies scattered around the U.S. government who knows anything about nuclear science at this level. All of the intelligence available to the US government on "yellowcake" or uranium-enrichment matters relating to these particular issues resides in the Department of Energy and in the national laboratories. If CIA Director’s troops did not ask DOE or the scientists at Sandia or Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore or the other labs what they thought about this yellowcake caper, they would not know any more than you or your advisers in British Intelligence know. You need your own personal Dr. Prather.
Indeed, when I met with my old friend Dick Cheney before the Bush Inaugural in 2001, I urged him to hire Dr. Prather as his own personal science advisor, and he agreed to take a look at him. Alas, the neo-conservatives around Vice President Cheney and at the Department of Energy and in the Pentagon slammed the door on him at every interview. The same occurred when I urged my old friend, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, to find a slot, any slot, for Dr. Prather. He told me he tried his best, but nobody seemed to need or want anyone with his background. Dr. Prather told me not long ago that there was no one with his background and expertise working for any of the 535 members of Congress or their committees or subcommittees. The last thing the warhawks wanted close to the decision-makers was someone who knew that Saddam Hussein did not pose a threat to his neighbors or to the region or to the world. As a result, I’m afraid our government and yours have made quite a mess of Iraq. At least it would help if you had intelligence that would help you understand why.