WASHINGTON — President Bush said Thursday that Iraq could make a nuclear bomb within a year after getting enriched uranium or plutonium. But Saddam Hussein has been unable to get that nuclear fuel for more than a decade.
There are two ways for him to get these fissile materials: purchasing them from the black market or making them himself. U.S. officials and independent experts said he had had no luck at either.
Despite "trying like the dickens," said a senior U.S. official, Iraqi front companies are not believed to have succeeded in buying any significant quantities of highly enriched uranium or plutonium on the international black market.
"It's hard, because there is not much of it out there and there are a lot of people trying to prevent bad people from getting it," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Moreover, there is no evidence that Iraqi engineers have succeeded in rebuilding the country's fissile materials-production facilities, some of which were destroyed by U.S. bombs in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and others by U.N. inspectors afterward, U.S. officials and experts said.
In fact, Bush's charge Thursday that Iraq has attempted to buy high-strength aluminum tubes for enriching uranium indicates that the country has only begun the years of work needed to reach production.
The tubes would be used to build high-speed centrifuges, and it would take considerable time to build them, link them in large networks and operate them long enough to obtain sufficient quantities of bomb-grade material.
Bush said in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly that the world could not wait for certainty about Iraq's nuclear plans.
"The first time that we may be completely certain he (Saddam) has nuclear weapons is when he, God forbids, uses one," the president said in making his case for action on Iraq.
Most U.S. officials and independent experts agree that Iraq is trying to rebuild its nuclear weapons program. But they say that after nearly four years without U.N. weapons inspections, it's nearly impossible to say with certainty how much progress Baghdad has made.
Iraq embarked on a massive nuclear-weapons program after Israeli jet fighters destroyed its Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, eliminating it as a source of plutonium that could fuel a nuclear weapon.
Experts inside and outside the U.S. government said that by the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq's program was much further along than had been thought by the U.S. intelligence community or the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. body that ensures that the world's civilian nuclear plants are not used to produce weapons.
Iraqi scientists and technicians secretly overcame most of the substantial hurdles of designing a nuclear weapon and were progressing toward building an implosion-type device. In such a device, a jacket of conventional explosives is used to compress a mass of plutonium or highly enriched uranium until it explodes in a nuclear detonation.
According to materials that IAEA inspectors gathered, Iraqi scientists developed key non-nuclear components for such a bomb. These components included a complex firing system and the conventional explosives that would be required to compress plutonium or highly enriched uranium.
That work was enhanced by know-how that Iraqi experts obtained at a U.S. government seminar in 1989, according to Khidir Hamza, a former director of Iraq's nuclear program who wrote a book about it after he defected in 1994.
Iraqi scientists also were pursuing a number of processes to obtain the fuel for a nuclear weapon, concentrating on separating uranium 235—the form required for a nuclear weapon—from other uranium isotopes.
After its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq launched a crash program to obtain uranium 235 by separating it chemically from highly enriched uranium that had been illegally diverted from two IAEA-policed research reactors.
U.S. bombs badly damaged Iraq's chemical separation plant. After the war, IAEA inspectors who were charged with dismantling Iraq's nuclear program removed the highly enriched uranium from the two research reactors.
The IAEA contends that by the time U.N. inspections ended in 1998 it had uncovered and destroyed virtually all of Iraq's nuclear weapons facilities. But it also says that only a resumption of the inspections can verify whether Iraq has resumed its pursuit of a nuclear bomb.
Bush told the U.N. that Iraq did not turn over to IAEA inspectors "important information about its nuclear program, weapons design, procurement logs, equipment data and accounting of nuclear materials and documentation of foreign assistance."