FAS | Nuke | Guide | Iraq | Nuclear |||| Index | Search |

Iraqi Nuclear Weapons

Before the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi scientists had progressed through several design iterations for a fission weapon based on an implosion design (one that is much more difficult to develop than the alternative, gun-type design. Still at the early stages of completing a design, they had successfully overcome some of, but certainly not all of the obstacles to a workable device. Using highly enriched uranium (HEU), a completed device based on the latest Iraqi design reportedly might have weighed from about a ton to somewhat more than a ton.

How close Iraq was to completing a bomb is still open to debate. At the request of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a group of nuclear weapon designers from the United States, Britain, France, and Russia met in April 1992 to assess the progress of Iraq's nuclear program prior to the Persian Gulf War, based on documents that had been obtained through subsequent inspections. These designers reportedly concluded that bottlenecks in the program could have delayed completion of a working bomb for at least three years, assuming Iraq had continued its multifaceted strategy and design approach.

However, several experts familiar with the inspections believe that Iraq could also probably have produced a workable device in as little as 6 to 24 months, had they decided to seize foreign-supplied HEU from under safeguards and focus their efforts on a crash program to produce a device in the shortest possible amount of time.

Iraq had a very well-funded nuclear weapons program aimed at the indigenous development and exploitation of technologies for the production of weapon-usable nuclear material and the development and production of nuclear weapons, with a target date of 1991 for the first weapon. [S/1997/779] It is reasonable to suppose that the first device, containing indigenously produced HEU, would not have been available before late 1992. Equally, if it is accepted that Iraq's strategy was to acquire a small nuclear arsenal before testing, it is likely that the need to demonstrate a delivery capability would not have occurred until 1994. [GC 40-13]

The program comprised:

Although Iraq's nuclear weapons program plan, established in 1988, had the objective to produce a small arsenal of weapons - with the first device being produced in 1991 - the three main components of the program, namely the production of HEU from domestic sources of uranium, the design and production of a viable device and the development of a delivery system, had not progressed equally to meet the planned schedule. [GC 40-13]

Iraq has developed or otherwise acquired many of the technologies required to produce deliverable nuclear weapons, but the attempt made by Iraq to assemble a nuclear device by diverting HEU from their safeguarded research reactor fuel was a clear indication that their uranium enrichment program was still far from production in January 1991.

The "Crash Program"

In April 1991, Iraq's inventory of safeguarded highly enriched uranium included fresh unirradiated fuel used for the Soviet IRT 5000 reactor, including 68 fuel assemblies of 80% enrichment with a U235 content of 10.97 kilograms and 10 assemblies of 36% enrichment with a U235 content of 1.27 kilograms. In addition, there was a set of fresh fuel plates for the French Tammuz-2 reactor with an enrichment of 93% and a total U235 content of 372 grams. Other highly enriched material included 35.58 kilograms of U235 which had been irradiated but could not be readily used in weapons production since the fissile material would have been difficult to extract quickly from the irradiated fuel. However, it was enriched to 93% which gave it high strategic value. [IAEA April 1992 ] Iraq had accumulated considerable experience in uranium metallurgy, and in January 1991 was ready to commence the recovery of the HEU from the safeguarded IRT-5000 research reactor fuel. [S/1997/779]

The crash program which was initiated in the late summer of 1990 had been planned to comprise the chemical processing of both unirradiated and irradiated research reactor fuel placed under IAEA safeguards to recover the HEU from the fuel; the re-enrichment of part of the HEU through the use of a 50-machine centrifuge cascade which was to have been specially constructed for the purpose; the conversion of the HEU chemical compounds to metal. Had the HEU recovery and enrichment process been successful, it could have resulted in the availability by the end of 1991 of a quantity of HEU sufficient to manufacture a single low-yield nuclear device. Also planned were measures such as the fabrication of the implosion package and the selection and construction of a test site and studies of a delivery system. Assembly of the device could not have been possible, according to the estimate of the Iraqis scientists, before the end of 1992. It is uncertain whether Iraq would have been able to overcome the considerable technical difficulties involved in this project. The plan could not be implemented because of the bombing in January 1991 that destroyed the technical tools at the nuclear research center at Tuwaitha for processing the highly enriched uranium (HEU) contained in the safeguarded research reactor fuel. [GC 40-13]

The Reactor Project - Project 182

Iraq's planned nuclear power program originated in 1975 and with international assistance, had developed from modest plans to acquire a single 600 MWe unit, to involve the progressive construction of four to six power plants by the year 2010. Although these plans had been further modified in the mid-1980s, no practical progress had been made in the acquisition of nuclear power plants other than the identification of four possible sites suitable for the location of nuclear power plants.

Iraq's feasibility studies on the underground siting of reactors and other fuel cycle related installations, had been aimed exclusively at providing protection from aerial attack and that the strategy had been abandoned due to its prohibitive cost. Although it had been managed by the same IAEC department, Project 182, relating to the construction of a research reactor, had been an entirely separate study. This project - which foresaw the construction of an indigenous research reactor to replace the capability that would have been provided by the Osirak (Tamuz-1) research reactor - had originated in 1984/85 after the breakdown in Iraq's negotiations with France for the rebuilding of the Osirak reactor. The Project 182 reactor was explained to have been a natural uranium - heavy water type, similar to the Canadian NRX reactor. When the project had become more defined, in 1987 and 1988, studies had concentrated on the design of the reactor core. As this work progressed it was recognized that considerable Iraq Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) and foreign resources would be needed to bring the project to fruition. In mid-1988, while still in the study phase, the project was allowed to lapse due to lack of available resources - a consequence of the higher priority given to the needs of the EMIS enrichment program. Studies on the indigenous production of heavy water had not progressed beyond surveys of technical literature and preliminary laboratory measurements. [GC 40-13]

Uranium Enrichment

In addition to extensive development of the EMIS (also known as calutrons) and preliminary work on centrifuge enrichment technology and materials acquisition, Iraq had also been pursuing chemical enrichment including both the ion-resin process developed by the Japanese and the liquid-liquid solvent extraction process developed by the French.

Electro-Magnetic Isotope Separation (EMIS) "Calutron"

Iraq made a deliberate effort to make its nuclear program self-sufficient and to reduce reliance upon foreign suppliers. In 1981, Israeli aircraft destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor at Tuwaitha. After the bombing, there was a debate in Iraq on how to recover. It was then that they decided to reduce their reliance upon foreign suppliers and attain nuclear self-sufficiency. At that time, Iraq appears to have made a political decision to send its nuclear program underground.

The decision to invest billions of dollars in uranium enrichment through electro-magnetic isotope separation, the so-called calutron program, is an example of how Iraq went about implementing this policy of self-sufficiency. The program did not have to depend on sophisticated imports needed for more modern and efficient methods of uranium enrichment. The Iraqi calutron program was largely indigenous and was an improvement over the technology used by the United States in the 1940's. Iraq had been preparing secretly to operate hundreds of the relatively simple devices.

Enrichment activities included two industrial-scale facilities for producing highly enriched uranium at Tarmiyah using the EMIS method. The Ash Sharka / Al-Sharqat facility, located over 300 kilometers north of Baghdad, was identical to a declared enrichment plant at Tarmiyah. The second facility was not completed. Iraq's facilities were comparable in size to the electromagnetic isotope separation during the American Manhattan Project, which developed the US atomic weapons in the 1940s, representing a four-to eight-billion-dollar investment on the Iraqis' part. The calutron technology is not obsolete, though it is expensive -- this technique has not been used for 45 years because it is not economic. Once the plants at Al Sharqat and Tarmiyah went into operation, Iraq would have been able to produce enough enriched uranium for one bomb a year from each plant. No industrial production had started at the two plants, but both would have been operational in 1992 or 1993.

The leader of the Iraqi enrichment program, Dr. Jaffar, initially claimed that the primary aim of the program was to develop a technological and industrial infrastructure, and that enriched uranium was needed for the research reactors and for a future nuclear power program. But to produce one gram of uranium enriched at 3.5 percent (which is the type of uranium needed by a nuclear power plant) through the electromagnetic approach would involve spending five times more energy than the energy produced by the reactor. The combination in the Iraqi EMIS program of high capacity/modest separation and low capacity/high separation would be particularly useful if the goal was to produce highly enriched uranium. [DGSP 1991-3] Although Iraq was at, or close to, the threshold of success in its endeavor to produce highly enriched uranium through the EMIS process, there is no indication that Iraq has produced more than a few grams of weapon-usable nuclear material nor any indication that Iraq has otherwise acquired such material. [S/1998/694] Iraq claimed that only about half a kilogram of uranium at an average enrichment level of 4% had been produced.

Gas Centrifuge Uranium Enrichment

Iraq has claimed that the primary objective of the gas centrifuge uranium enrichment had been to exploit the tested, prototype single cylinder model, and that all resources had been directed toward this objective. The small amount of work that had been done with a view to exploiting the design drawings of super-critical two-cylinder and multi-cylinder centrifuge designs were asserted to have been a "spare time" study, which had achieved little of consequence. It was explained that this study had been biased towards the more complex, multi-cylinder, design simply because there were more design details available for that machine. Iraq has claimed that, although it would have eventually sought to exploit higher efficiency centrifuge designs, the primary goal had been the large-scale exploitation of the single cylinder machine, which it considered to be a proven design. The modifications which had been made to buildings at Al Furat and EDC Rashdiya were stated to be very much forward-looking and should not be taken to imply that hopes of early exploitation of multi-cylinder centrifuge designs had been seriously entertained. [S/1997/779]

No evidence had been found by the IAEA as of 1996 of practical progress towards the establishment of the 50-machine centrifuge enrichment cascade; although it appears that external assistance was to have been relied upon for the procurement and production of the carbon fiber cylinders and other components of the centrifuge rotors. [GC 40-13]

Iraq has claimed that the Petrochemical-3 project (PC-3) had adopted a policy of avoiding foreign assistance, believing that the risk of exposure (e.g., through "sting" operations) far outweighed the likely technical benefits. [S/1997/779] But many drawings and specifications relating to centrifuge machines had been provided through foreign assistance, some of which concerned advanced technology, multi-cylinder machines. Iraq had planned to build a third centrifuge facility at a location in south Taji which would have accommodated cascade halls of up to 1,000 machines and, which according to Iraq, would have been the site of a future commercial scale UF6 production facility. Iraq's rapidly developing program for the design, development, manufacture and operation of gas centrifuge machines was not, according to Iraq, matched by a similar high priority plan for the secure supply of production-scale amounts of UF6 - the basic feed material. Iraq has declared its laboratory-scale UF6 production capacity to have been more than adequate to support the ongoing development activities in 1990 and considered that there was no urgency to provide for large-scale production. [S/1997/779]

Iraq imported large quantities of raw materials and components required for the manufacture of centrifuges to produce enriched uranium, sufficient to produce a few thousand centrifuges. The main items included: special aluminum alloy extrusions for the manufacture of centrifuge vacuum housings; ferrite magnets and other components used in the stator of centrifuge motors; and special equipment needed to fix the stator components in place. Iraq also obtained: 100 tons of special high strength steel (maraging steel) for centrifuge rotors and rotor fittings; and several thousand aluminum forgings for vacuum housing flanges. The quantities involved would have sufficed for the manufacture of several thousand centrifuges. Iraq's centrifuge enrichment program had not progressed to a point where they could have started a sizeable production of centrifuges, although given time, they would have been successful. The program had developed to a point, however, where the material necessary for certain key components had been identified. This enabled the procurement of materials as opportunities became available even though the centrifuge design had not been completely finalized nor the manufacturing process fully implemented. The operation of a production scale uranium-enrichment centrifuge cascade, given the state of Iraqi centrifuge technology when work stopped, would have required the foreign procurement of large numbers of finished components. Iraq was constructing a facility deemed by experts as being capable of producing a few thousand centrifuge machines a year. [IAEA April 1992]

Laser Isotopic Separation (LIS)

Iraq invested significant resources into uranium enrichment through laser isotope separation (LIS) involving both molecular (MLIS) and atomic vapor (AVLIS) technologies, including a number of activities with respect to laser component manufacture, particularly CO2 lasers and the manufacture of components for use in laser-related experimentation. The Laser Section within the Physics Department of the IAEC at Tuwaitha received an objective in 1981 from the IAEC to work in Laser Isotope Separation. It started in two lines; one which was looking after the molecular and the other the atomic vapor direction. When the achievements of the Laser Section were evaluated in 1987 it was decided that the project should be downgraded to a "watching brief" and that a number of key personnel should be transferred to other projects, notably EMIS. This loosely coordinated and largely empirical approach to LIS had apparently not reached the point of an integrated experiment that achieved any isotopic separation of either elemental uranium or UF6 or that they had developed even the most rudimentary capabilities in either AVLIS or MLIS technologies. Export controls and voluntary refusals on the part of several equipment suppliers had severely hampered the Iraqi LIS activities by preventing the procurement from abroad of critical pieces of equipment, most notably copper vapor laser systems. [GC 39-10] The opinion of IAEA experts was that Iraq's explanation of its LIS activities was plausible, but surprise was expressed that Iraq had not undertaken the relatively simple step of vaporizing uranium metal. [S/1997/779]

Chemical and Ion-Exchange Uranium Enrichment

Iraq made some progress in chemical (solvent extraction) and ion-exchange methods for the enrichment of uranium, before the outbreak of the Gulf war. All of the activities carried out had taken place at the Nuclear Research Centre, Tuwaitha, except for the production of tri-butyl phosphate which, together with some theoretical work on crown ethers, had been done at Muthanna. The motivation to develop the chemical enrichment process had been Iraq's wish to enhance the capability of the EMIS process by feeding low enriched instead of natural uranium. Iraq appears to have done only limited, basic laboratory-scale work in solvent extraction for uranium enrichment. However, Iraq could have addressed the practical problems that would have arisen during scaling-up. At the time it had been in the process of procuring components for a pilot plant to produce four tons per year of 1 to 1.2 % enriched uranium. Concerning ion exchange enrichment technology, the approach was promising, but that a lot of work was needed, as experience with it was limited in Iraq. The results of laboratory scale experiments, using indigenously produced ion exchange resins, were stated to have been modest and a similar project for a pilot plant to produce four tons per year of up to 3% enriched uranium had not gone beyond the preliminary assessment of equipment and material requirements. The most promising project, though still at the conceptual design stage in late 1990, combined both enrichment methods in an hybrid process having a solvent extraction first stage and an ion exchange output stage, in order to produce up to five tons per year of 4 to 8% enriched uranium. [GC 40-13]

Gaseous Diffusion Enrichment

The First Group of IAEC Department 3000 continued its work in the production of diffusion barriers and compressors, which are key components of gaseous diffusion enrichment technology, after its relocation from Tuwaitha to the Engineering Design Centre (Rashdiya). Some significant achievements had been attained in the development of anodized aluminum barriers. It had been able to demonstrate the corrosion resistance of the barrier material to UF6 and had achieved measurable uranium isotopic separation. However, this activity, carried out in 1989, had not progressed beyond the qualification of a single type of barrier. Parallel to barrier studies, attempts to reverse-engineer compressors had been made, in co-operation with Iraq's Specialized Institute for Engineering Industries. However, these attempts had not been successful. All activities related to gaseous diffusion had been stopped in 1989 and priority given to exploiting the progress made in as centrifuge enrichment technology. [GC 40-13]


Activities carried out at first at Tuwaitha and later at Al Atheer had been aimed at the production of a nuclear device, and not only to the definition of what was required to produce it. The involvement of the Al Qa Qaa State Establishment in support of the development of the implosion package began in 1987. [GC 40-13]

Iraq had made significant progress in weaponization technologies before April 1991. [S/1998/694] The Iraqis possessed flash x-ray photography equipment and high-speed streak cameras -- both useful in the R&D phase for studying the timing and compression achieved by a nuclear implosion design.

A significant decision been taken regarding the dimensions of the explosive lens of choice at a meeting of January 12, 1991. This decision strongly indicated that similar decisions had been taken regarding the design of the weapon internals. While the size of the explosive lenses had been fixed at the meeting of January 12, 1991, Iraq asserted that the decision had been reached empirically and had been most strongly influenced by the restriction on the external diameter of the nuclear weapon imposed by the most appropriate missile delivery vehicle available at that time. Iraq contended that no decision had been made with respect to the design of the weapon internals and, that no practical experiments had been made to support any particular design concept. [S/1998/38]

Iraq maintained that, despite the increased urgency imposed by the so-called 'crash program', it had not yet identified design options beyond those preliminary concepts described in the last version of the PC-3 Group Four report entitled "Basic design report of the implosion device", dated July 14, 1990. It further maintained that no experimental program had been established through which to validate possible options identified by computation. [S/1998/38]

Nuclear Weapon Missile Delivery Vehicle

Iraq's nuclear weapons program, as planned in 1988, foresaw the production of the first weapon in 1991. However, the nuclear weapon in the mid-1988 conceptual design was deemed to be far too heavy to be delivered by missile. Consequently the PC-3 Fourth Group (Weapon development) had been advised to modify the design "with a view to reducing the total weight of the projectile (payload) to about one ton or less". It appears that three delivery vehicle options were pursued: [GC 40-13]

Post 2003 Developments

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iraq has signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Iraq’s Ministry of Science and Technology has worked with the multinational Iraq Nuclear Facility Dismantlement and Disposal Project established by the United States Department of State to remove the country’s remaining nuclear infrastructure. Since 2003, the Iraqi government has adhered to non-proliferation policies. In 2008, the United States removed approximately 600 tons of yellowcake uranium from Tuwaitha. The uranium removed was the last significant uranium stockpile in Iraq.

FAS | Nuke | Guide | Iraq | Nuclear |||| Index | Search |


Maintained by Webmaster and Jonathan Garbose
Updated Thursday, May 31, 2012 12:14:02 PM