Monday, October 24, 2005
Mon Oct 24, 2005 at 03:27:33 PM PDT
The issue of whether Iraq sought to buy yellowcake from Niger is and has always been irrelevant. The White House -- Bush, Cheney, Rice, Hadley; the intelligence community -- Tenet and CIA, DOE, and the State Department; Valerie Plame, and Joe Wilson, have all understood this from day one. Plame herself called the idea "crazy."
What has been utterly misunderstood, misrepresented, and lost amid the babble of speculation and intrigue, is that Iraq didn't need yellowcake. They'd had a million pounds of it sitting around "in country" for over a decade, but with no viable means whatsoever of making it into nuclear weapons.
It is all about the cover-up.
The science is what's missing. Understand that and the real fraud will smack you right between the eyes, that someone rammed the Niger/yellowcake 'angle' down the intelligence community's throats. And everyone in the IC knew it, choosing to either toe the line or mutter quietly in the halls.
Except Joe Wilson. He picked the scab that mattered, pointed to the elephant in the room. Niger. God willing, I'll find a way to make these subtle but important distinctions clear. Please bear with me.
Mine and refine
In nature, uranium is an ore much like iron. You dig it out of the ground as a big lump of uranium mixed with crud. The crud has to go, so by one of a few processes the crud is stripped away leaving mostly uranium. BTW, the industry's technical term for "crud" is "other." Crud's funnier.
The so-called "pure" uranium that's left over is very weakly radioactive and not especially dangerous. Also, like cheese in the sun, it doesn't stay "pure" for long because it reacts with the air, sometimes in ways that are unpleasant.
So countries like Niger, who mine and sell uranium force it to react a specific way to make a product that can be safely stored for a long time. They turn it into yellowcake. 
Yellowcake is nothing more than uranium right from the ground that has been refined and stabilized. Short of eating it, breathing it, or batter-dipping yourself in it, yellowcake is not all that dangerous either.
**This is really important.**
On a drive from NJ to CA, at the PA state line you are indeed closer to CA. But if you have to pee, I wouldn't recommend holding it.
On the drive to build a nuclear weapon from uranium, "yellowcake" is the PA state line. FYI, should you make to the mid-west, Israel will start launching U.S. cruise missles at you.
Process and enrich
The whole point of a nuclear weapon is making a big "boom." And that is really frickin' hard or a terrorist would have done it a long time ago.
Like everything else in the universe, uranium is made of atoms. And like everything else in the universe, somebody screwed up because 1 out of every 100 uranium atoms is slightly different from the other 99. THAT's the one that goes "boom." So, you have to find that one stinkin' atom out of a hundred, toss away the other 99 (depleted uranium), and do this again and again until you have enough.
Like a bazillion times. Because, as President Bush so clearly illustrated, it takes about a softball-sized chunk of enriched uranium to make a nucular weapon. And there are like a bazillion atoms in a softball. If a few regular old non-booming uranium atoms slip in, that's OK, but 90 out of 100 have to be the 'funny' kind.
A lump of uranium where 90 out of 100 atoms are the dangerous kind is weapons-grade uranium.
Making weapons-grade uranium from yellowcake sucks, and it takes a long time. First you have to turn the yellowcake into a gas, and then that gas into a different gas, etc., etc. and ONLY THEN can you start searching through a gas for the atoms that go "boom." Remember that scene in the Karate Kid, where Mr. Miagi and what's his face are trying to catch flies with chopsticks? Harder than that.
Preparing yellowcake so you can start looking for the right atoms is typically called "processing" and repeatedly separating out that single atom and tossing away the other 99 is called enriching uranium. You are making the uranium "richer" in the kind that go "boom."
- Low-enriched uranium (LEU) has more than 1 funky uranium atom per 100, but less than 20.
- Highly enriched uranium (HEU) is anything with more than 20 per 100.
- Nuclear reactor fuel has 3 or 4 funky uranium atoms per 100.
- Weapons grade uranium has more than 90 funky uraniums atom per 100. 
- In 1991, Iraq was discovered to have about 500 metric tons (~1 million lbs.) of yellowcake they'd 'forgotten' to mention. George Herbert Walker Bush, his coalition pals, and the International Atomic Energy Agency were so alarmed that Iraq had yellowcake, they decided to leave it in Iraq. The "prudent" course of action as they saw it: put it drums, seal it up, and check the seals once a year. They knew an entire year was not long enough for Hussein to make anything dangerous out of yellowcake. [3, .pdf]
- That yellowcake was inspected and remained untouched until Hussein barred the U.N. inspectors in late 1998. [see 3 above]
- On Oct. 6, 2002, the CIA sent a fax to the White House that stated "the procurement [of yellowcake] is not particularly significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions because the Iraqis already have a large stock of uranium oxide [yellowcake] in their inventory. [4, para. 7, emphasis added]
- During Dec. 9-11, 2002, before Bush's SOTU claim that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake from Africa, U.N. Inspectors verified that the yellowcake from 1991 was in Iraq, undisturbed, and still sealed. [see 3 above]
Repeated claims that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger, initiated and bolstered solely by the CIA's Directorate of Operations were irrelevant. The idea was never credible, never implied Iraq was re-starting their nuclear programs, and never taken seriously. Iraq had all the yellowcake it needed and 4 years to use it ('99-'02) -- they had no facilities to enrich uranium.
Ask yourself: why would Iraq try to buy 500-550 mT of yellowcake when they already had the same amount, during a period and no one was inspecting it?
Care to guess where Iraq originally bought it's yellowcake back in the late 80's? About 1/2 of it came from Niger, receipts they turned over in the early 90's. Receipts from the 80's for 500-550 mT of yellowcake.
And finally, yes finally, ask yourself who in the Bush administration during '02-'03 didn't understand the unspannable gap between yellowcake and a nuclear bomb:
- George W. Bush? Who's father left 500 mT of yellowcake in Hussein's possession?
- Dick Cheney? The Secretary of Defense in 1991? The energy mogul with interests in nuclear power?
- Condoleeza Rice? The head of NSC who got her undergraduate degree at age 19 and her master's at 20? Who served on the board of Chevron and had a tanker named after her?
- George Tenet? Whose agency said buying yellowcake "was not particularly significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions?"