“With great honour, I declare that as of today our dear country has joined the nuclear club of nations and can produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale,” Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced to the world yesterday. And as he knew they would, his opponents reacted with great concern.

The US State Department said the United Nations Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency “don’t believe Iran’s assurances that their (nuclear) program is peaceful in nature”.

In a fit of mildness, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said: “It’s very important for any member country to fully comply with the Security Council resolution. I urge the Iranian Government to do so.” Iran hasn’t struggled with ignoring the UN. Yesterday’s announcement further defies the sanctions imposed by the world body in December following Iran’s refusal to suspend enrichment.

Iran, of course, maintains it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, but it now has 10 times the number of centrifuges working on the task — 3000 — and the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon within a year. So how much closer is Iran to producing a nuclear bomb? Much closer, says Dr Jim Green, National Nuclear Campaigner for Friends of the Earth.

“Natural uranium is about 0.7% uranium 235. Low enriched uranium is about 3-5% uranium 235, and that’s what you put in a power reactor. To build a bomb, typically it will be 80% uranium 235. But the main point is once you have an industrial-scale enrichment plant you can produce highly enriched uranium for bombs,” Dr Green told Crikey.

There are precedents. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was uranium 235. South Africa and Pakistan developed their nuclear weapons through enrichment plants under cover of a peaceful nuclear program. Australia had a secret nuclear enrichment program in the basement of a building at Lucas Heights, a situation which Green says puts Australia in an awkward position.

“At the same time as there are international moves to stop Iran’s enrichment, Australia is still doing enrichment research at Lucas Heights and trying to flog that off. What Iran clearly needed to do was scale the whole thing up and that’s evidently what they are in the process of doing,” Dr Green says. 

“Historically the most difficult part of building a nuclear bomb has been in getting the fissile material. Sometimes the weaponisation process can be problematic. The Iraqis had some trouble with that in the 1970s and 1980s so that’s another obstacle the Iranians will have to get around if they are planning to make a nuclear weapon. But now they have the means to obtain the fissile material, they are more than half way home.”