Culture / Iraq / Skepticism · August 9, 2006

American’s wacky beliefs – WMDs and Astrology.

It is no surprise that Americans are not very skeptical when it comes to things like psychic phenomena or Astrology. It’s human nature to believe in something bigger than ourselves. It’s the yearning to be a shaman or witch doctor that we all have, the yearning to control nature around us, or failing that, continue to live after our body has died. A lot of people have pinned their hopes and dreams onto a belief that there is a greater purpose.

Considering this blind faith in things that can not be proved, I guess it makes sense that Americans will have faith in things with false or misleading proof. You really can’t blame Americans for believing in WMDs when they see pictures of Jets pulled out of the Iraqi desert, when everyone acknowledges the tons of Yellowcake Uranium stored at al Tuwaitha, and when American Senator Rick Santorum along with Representative Peter Hoekstra announced “we have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

This is a major problem with America’s ‘sound-byte democracy’. If the news is complicated, nuanced, or just takes longer than 30 seconds to explain, then it seems to me the majority of Americans don’t bother to listen. And as for doing any research, to look things up for themselves, well forget about it!

And I guess I can understand that too. Take Yellowcake Uranium for example. Bloggers point to 500 tons of it already in Iraq and claim that it is a perfect example of why we went to war. This Uranium is so dangerous, so easily converted to WMDs, that when it was discovered by our troops during Desert Storm George H. W. Bush (Senior) decided to leave it where it was.

Yes, that’s right. We left it there. Because it was safe to leave it!

I have to admit that this confused me when I heard about it. 500 tons of uranium seems like it can make a lot of bombs. It took me several hours of study to figure out that it’s really hard to make an atomic bomb. Oh sure, you can easily find atomic bomb theory on the Internet. Given enough U235 to make a critical mass – the rest of the bomb is pretty straightforward. The killer is getting the U235.

Yellowcake Uranium, also called Triuranium octaoxide (U3O8) is comprised of about 90% U3O8, and 10 percent ‘junk’. Of the remaining pure U3O8, 99.283% is U238. 0.711% is U235 and 0.005% is U234. (Facts from “Uranium Enrichment and Nuclear Weapon Proliferation” by A. Krass)

Out of 500 tons of Yellowcake Uranium, there is potentially 3.2 tons of pure U235, or 2903 kg. That’s the stuff that blows up.

The problem is in the purifying of the U235. U238 actually inhibits a nuclear explosion. The amount of critical mass required for an explosion depends on the purity, or ‘enrichment’ of the Uranium. The amount of material needed to reach critical mass depends on enrichment in this way:

Enrichment / Critical mass of U235
10% / 100 kg
20% / 50 kg
50% / 25 kg
100% / 15 kg

Anything under 10% enrichment just won’t explode.

So at 20% enrichment, you get 50 kg of U235 out of 250 kg of U3O8. That’s enough for 58 bombs out of the original 500 tons of Yellowcake. (You get more bombs out of a higher enrichment.) Of course along with the 500 pounds of critical mass, you’ll need bomb casings, explosives to start the reaction, and a way of delivering the bomb. It becomes apparent why the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, “Little Boy” weighed in at 8,900 lbs and had to be carried by a B29 Superfortress. The last I checked, none of the Iraqi jets buried in the sand could carry such a burden to the USA.

And the processes required to enrich the U235 are big, complicated, and yield results slowly. Using the centrifuge method, (remember the aluminum tubes?) requires either a very big factory, or a lot of smaller factories, and would produce enough U235 for a single bomb at 20% enrichment by the end of the first year of production. More elaborate factories, and more of them would produce results sooner, but they would be difficult to staff, equip, and hide from weapons inspectors. Higher levels of enrichment take a lot longer to accomplish too.

Our government, inspectors, and the IAEA kept tabs on Saddam’s Uranium during the time before Bush Junior’s war. Sure, the Iraqi’s were surly about it and tried to make it difficult for the inspectors, that was part of the ‘game’. America played this game because we knew how hard it would be for Saddam to DO anything with what he had. If we were serious, we would have packed all the Yellowcake aboard a few C-130s or a C-5 and flown it all away.

But we didn’t. We let it stay there for years, before we finally came and got some of it.

Because it was pretty frikken obvious that Yellowcake Uranium was about as effective a WMD as a bunch of broken down, buried jets with no fuel or weapons. It was as threatening as Senator Santorum’s WMDs.