Joshua PollackWonk Pissing Contest

Cross-posted from TotalWonkerr.com.

The Iran breakout debate has officially become tiresome.

Anyone bothering to read this blog will remember the instant analysis of the last IAEA report that ISIS put out. It got quite a bit of attention at the time.

Some of you might also have seen what Glaser and Kemp wrote in response.

Anyone on the ISIS email list certainly knows, because ISIS called them out yesterday, for some reason.

Kemp and Glaser made a quick reply.

Knowledge doesn’t grow without criticism and debate. I’ve certainly learned a thing or two from this exchange. But some of it seems waaaay too close to being a determined defense of a hasty analysis that grabbed headlines and caused confusion. This approach ill serves the cause of informing the public about science and policy issues affecting international security.

That is all.

Comments

  1. Matthew Sharp (History)

    I disagree; there might be a little bit of bluster getting in the way, but it seems like a good thing to have different groups checking each other’s work and pointing out weaknesses, and we’re better off for the discussion. In the end, it seems that there’s something approaching a consensus, having gone through several steps:

    1) The IAEA report gave the mass of LEU UF6.

    2) the original ISIS report did the multiplication and pointed out that there are enough U235 atoms in this quantity to make a nice pile of HEU (and the NYTimes noticed).

    3) Kemp and Glaser tried to be a bit more quantitative, giving timelines for several pathways to a weapon’s worth of HEU and arriving at the 1-3 years estimate.

    4) ISIS retorted that K&G had neglected the covert facility option, had left out 2,000 centrifuges, had underestimated the performance of the Iranian plant’s machines. They emphasized that six months might be a better estimate.

    5) K&G respond to these points, indicating that they accept the importance of these factors but consider them to be addressed in their work, even if this wasn’t always obvious from the original text. They point out that their worst case scenario and ISIS’s coincide rather nicely.

    So we’re left with a ~1year estimate of how bad things could be if the Iranians ditch inspections now, reconfigure, and go for broke with a single bomb. We’ve learned about the penalty they’ll have to pay if they try to feed LEU through the cascades they have now, which are not arranged for such use. ISIS has rightly emphasized the uncertainty from a covert plant, and even tried to put some numbers out there for a hypothetical case of this. As gravy, we’ve been warned that if you see Iran refusing to convert their UF6 to metal (K&G) or trying to enrich their stuff to 20% for research reactors (ISIS), DANGER.

    Through the back and forth, new information has been revealed and each group’s work has been clarified, leaving us better off for the effort. All that’s missing is a consensus document from the two groups, which I would read with pleasure.

    The problem here, as was noted previously on these pages, was sloppy reporting. The original articles in the popular press would have benefitted from some more extensive sourcing, just as we have.

    I say the more people computing enrichment scenarios, the better, and the dueling releases add some dramatic flair to the whole thing.

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