Review the literature on nuclear anti-proliferation, and you get the impression that used fuel from civilian power reactors is a major proliferation threat. Henry Sokolski, a prominent anti-proliferation expert, recently told Nucleonics Week that U.S. loan guarantees for nuclear plants are subsidies that could increase proliferation risks. Why? Because French and Russian companies are potential beneficiaries of guarantees, and France and Russia have less stringent controls on their nuclear exports than the U.S.
But then review the actual history of nuclear proliferation, and you realize that of the 9 countries that currently possess nuclear weapons—the Security Council Permanent 5 plus India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea—none produced their explosive using a reactor designed exclusively for electric power generation.
Of course, the historical record does not by itself prove that it impossible to get weapons-usable material from used power reactor fuel. But, as one of this blog’s commenters pointed out, the historical record also does not prove that it is impossible to convert a V-8 car engine into an 8-barrel cannon. That is where common sense would come in. Of course it is not impossible; just difficult—and unnecessary. Anybody who is good enough at metalwork and gunsmithing to be able to actually turn a V-8 engine into a gun would probably not waste his time making a gun that way; he’d probably just design a gun, acquire materials, and then make it from scratch.
The same goes for a determined seeker of nuclear weapons. Any proliferator who is skilled and knowledgeable enough to extract weapons-usable plutonium from used fuel is also skilled and knowledgeable enough to make plutonium in another, more efficient way. And if he doesn’t have the skill or desire to make his bomb with plutonium, then he could try getting it the same way most other proliferators have done: by enriching uranium.
Going back to the historical record, there are two countries—India and Pakistan—that possess civilian power reactors and that developed nuclear weapons, either indigenously (India) or with some help from a friend (Pakistan; the friend was China). Neither country obtained its nuclear explosive from used power reactor fuel.
(George Perkovich, in India’s Nuclear Bomb, writes that two Indian sources told him that one of the reported Indian tests of 1998 involved reactor-grade plutonium. Though the book was published 12 years ago, this remains uncorroborated by any other reports, including those filed over the years by Mark Hibbs, formerly of Nucleonics Week, who closely covered India’s nuclear program. Besides, most western experts believe four of the 5 reported Indian tests of 1998 were failures, including that of the “low yield device” which Perkovich’s sources allege was made from reactor-grade plutonium. Experts widely believe that only the boosted fission weapon test was successful.)
Moreover, Pakistan’s early nuclear program was based on plutonium. Pakistan had a power reactor—the CANDU near Karachi (a.k.a. the KANUPP), a Canadian-designed heavy water machine which went into service in 1972. The Indian nuclear test of 1974 had a huge impact on Pakistan and accelerated Pakistan’s effort to build its own bomb. Yet Pakistan’s bomb, by all accounts, is based not on plutonium but on enriched uranium. And the plutonium production capability it subsequently acquired is in the form of a dedicated production reactor made from components acquired from Europe and built with Chinese assistance. The KANUPP CANDU doesn’t figure in Pakistan’s weapons plutonium production.
In the history of nuclear proliferation, you’d be hard pressed to find a nuclear aspirant more motivated than Pakistan. Why then didn’t the Pakistanis build their first bomb using plutonium from the KANUPP CANDU? Reading the anti-proliferation literature, you’d that this would have been their first choice. I guess that’s the difference between theory and reality. You can do anything in theory. But when it comes to solving expensive problems that are wrapped up in national security and political prestige, you tend to take reality more seriously.
Faced with practical, real-world pressure to build a real bomb, Pakistan ignored the anti-proliferation crowd—whose rhetoric aims to make remote impracticalities appear imminent—and chose the doable route to a bomb, enriched uranium.
Again, this does not prove that you can’t use reactor-grade plutonium in a bomb. In fact, North Korea figured out how to make reactor-grade plutonium explode. But the reactor was based on a Magnox, a 1950s-vintage British graphite-moderated, CO2-cooled machine designed expressly for the dual purpose of producing both plutonium for weapons (its main purpose) and electricity.
No country has used fuel from a dedicated power reactor to make a bomb. There is no power reactor on the world market today that has a dual-use capability; all are designed exclusively for power generation. No reactor vendor would sell a machine to another country that did not agree to IAEA safeguards on the used fuel.
This is why, contrary to what most anti-proliferation advocates say, the commercial nuclear industry is actually the strongest bulwark against proliferation. Any country that buys a reactor, accepts IAEA safeguards. That country will not build a bomb.
Russia and France are members of the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Is Sokolski right to say that France and Russia are proliferation conduits? No, I think he’s just against nuclear loan guarantees in the U.S. And that’s because he’s anti nuclear.
Shutting down the nuclear industry in the west won’t stem proliferation, it will spur it. A thriving commercial industry is what pays for international monitoring frameworks like the IAEA safeguards regime. Ultimately, it is reactor and fuel sales, and nuclear utility revenues, that pay for safeguards.
Yes, the same filthy lucre that motivates reactor sales is what prevents proliferation. Henry Sokolski, if he’s really against proliferation, should support nuclear loan guarantees.