[ RadSafe ] Proliferation

Brennan, Mike (DOH) Mike.Brennan at DOH.WA.GOV
Wed Jul 9 12:50:36 CDT 2008

>From one of the articles Sandy posted (thank you, Sandy):

"One of the key concerns is the two principal ways of making nuclear
fuel -- the enrichment of uranium, for instance, in huge installations
of centrifuges; and the reprocessing of spent fuel into plutonium -- can
too easily be used to make weapons-grade material for nuclear bombs."

This is trotted out both by anti-nukes and by people who want to agitate
against a particular country.  I think the dangers are overstated in two

The first is that it is technically not easy to make weapons-grade
material in the quantities needed for weapons.  It is clearly within the
technological abilities of a number of countries to make centrifuge
systems that can concentrate U235, however there is a non-trivial
increase in the challenge when moving from the several percent enriched
needed for reactor fuel to the near isotopicly pure U235 needed for a
weapon.  And it takes a LOT of uranium to get the required amount of

If the reactor is not designed to optimize the production of Pu239 and
limit production of other isotopes of plutonium, the recycled fuel from
that reactor will not be very suitable for weapons.  Personally, I
suspect that a major part of North Korea's willingness to dismantle
their nuclear weapons program in exchange for lots of wealth was that
their test explosive device (it wasn't usable as a weapon; that is
another level of complexity) proved that they couldn't make
weapons-grade material with their system.  I can't prove that, but it
fits the evidence better than "they changed their position out of the
goodness of their hearts."

The second reason I think the proliferation risk is overstated is that
EVEN IF a country is successful in making a, or even several, atomic
weapons, they will find what the US and USSR found: they aren't very
useful.  They lack flexibility.  If the other side has them, too, you
can use them to kick over the game board, but you can't use them to win
the game.  The claim, "They are just crazy enough to do it!" is perhaps
over used when the correct phrase is more like "I haven't bothered to
try to figure out their reasoning."  Both the US and USSR were guilty of
that during the Cold War.

The third reason is that, frankly, the world is safer with the "rogue
nations" spending their resources on nuclear weapons research than it is
with them pursuing other things, such as biological or chemical weapons.
North Korea trying to make a nuclear weapon is scary; North Korea trying
to resurrect small pox is terrifying.  A country giving a terrorist
organization a nuke is bad; a country giving a terrorist organization
the same dollar-value of a top-grade nerve gas is worse.

So why am I saying this?  I believe that as new reactors are proposed
around the world, the anti-nuke faction will take every opportunity to
overstate dangers.  I believe that responsible people, especially those
in the rad community, should be prepared to point out the weaknesses in
those arguments, especially if we are called upon by the media to

More information about the RadSafe mailing list