Crack open USA Today (11/28/12) and you saw this headline:
Diagram Suggests Iran Working on Bomb
The story was short–short enough for a careful reader to see that it in no way lived up to that alarmist headline.
But the piece still tried really hard to frighten people. Here's the lead:
Iranian scientists have run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon that would produce more than triple the explosive force of the World War II bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, according to a diagram obtained by the Associated Press.
The diagram was leaked by officials from a country critical of Iran's atomic program to bolster their arguments that Iran's nuclear program must be halted before it produces a weapon. The officials provided the diagram only on condition that they and their country not be named.
OK, so anonymous critics of Iran, motivated by a desire to "halt" (i.e., bomb) Iran's nuclear energy program, want us to know about their secret proof that Iran is up to something. As if that weren't suspicious enough, the only named expert in the piece is saying there's nothing here:
David Albright, whose Institute for Science and International Security is used by the U.S. government as a go-to source on Iran's nuclear program, said the diagram looks genuine but seems to be designed more "to understand the process" than as part of a blueprint for an actual weapon in the making.
USA Today readers didn't get a chance to see the diagram, but it was on the AP website:
That doesn't look very threatening to me. But hey–I'm no scientist. Luckily, some actual scientists have taken a look at AP's evidence, and they're not impressed. At the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website, Yousaf Butt and Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress write:
The graphic has not yet been authenticated; however, even if authentic, it would not qualify as proof of a nuclear weapons program.
Besides the issue of authenticity, the diagram features quite a massive error, which is unlikely to have been made by research scientists working at a national level. The image released to the Associated Press shows two curves: one that plots the energy versus time, and another that plots the power output versus time, presumably from a fission device. But these two curves do not correspond: If the energy curve is correct, then the peak power should be much lower–around 300 million ( 3×108) kt per second, instead of the currently stated 17 trillion (1.7 x1013) kt per second. As is, the diagram features a nearly million-fold error.
This diagram does nothing more than indicate either slipshod analysis or an amateurish hoax. In any case, the level of scientific sophistication needed to produce such a graph corresponds to that typically found in graduate- or advanced undergraduate-level nuclear physics courses.
They add, "Graphs such as the one published by the Associated Press can be found in nuclear science textbooks and on the Internet."
As Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald concluded, the real story might be not the one that AP intended:
That this AP graph quite strongly appears to be a hoax seems a much more significant story than the discovery of the graph itself, given the ends toward which this was clearly being put, and given the way that the war in Iraq was sold to the public.