Filthy lucre and nuclear non-proliferation: what keeps them apart

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.

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9 years ago

Most of my pro nuclear colleagues do not like my insistence on asserting that the underlying motivation for the non-proliferation movement is to keep nuclear energy from being more competitive with fossil fuels. From my point of view, that is the only logical conclusion. If you are adamantly opposed to making nuclear energy “easier” (which I translate to mean “cheaper”) then you are fundamentally making it less competitive with establishment energy sources.

That is a profitable position to take. It is even a rational position to take if the goal is a narrowly focused profit motive. It is even a popular position to take since the fossil fuel industry is one of the world’s oldest, largest and most widely integrated multinational industries in the world.

For the long term prosperity of the human race, however, it is a stupid and selfish position to take.

Steve Aplin
9 years ago
Reply to  Rod Adams

Rod, thanks and Happy New Year. I couldn’t agree more, and I think it’s time we called the self-styled anti-proliferationists out for the petroleum salesmen that they are. I don’t much care whether they are salesmen by accident or design, it’s the upshot that counts. And the upshot, as you point out, is that they are deliberately trying to make nuclear energy more expensive.

And I also agree that this is a simple logical conclusion. Why else would people like Sokolski, who say they are against the very existence of weapons-grade plutonium, OPPOSE programs to turn plutonium from actual warheads into reactor fuel? When you burn it, you destroy it! But Sokolski would rather turn it into pucks and put it under permanent safeguards. What hypocrisy.

9 years ago

Frankly, I am baffled by the position of nonproliferation groups who oppose expansion of civilian nuclear energy in the U.S. Exactly which publicaly traded utility is going to modify their reactor to make weapons grade materials? It’s an absurd position.

9 years ago

The claim that more power station reactors in a current nuclear power would heighten proliferation risk is not really saying much. Once there exists a commercial sized civilian nuclear industry, whatever proliferation risk there is within a country wouldn’t likely be well correlated with the number of reactors, or even the size of the nuclear industry as a whole: risk would have more to do with the procedures of training staff, procedures of making fuel, procedures of storing waste, and so on. Adding additional reactors would increase risk by no appreciable amount.

There is one argument which you don’t explicitly consider. Where the creation, in a non-nuclear country, of a civilian nuclear power industry could lead to a “cover” of a completely separate bomb making operation. So that, for example, the country would be training people to work in the civilian industry, but some would be diverted into a bomb making industry. Companies making nuclear power reactor components would use the knowledge to secretely develop skills to make bomb-making reactors.

It is very hard to hide a nuclear industry, of any type. So if a country were to have either a nuclear power industry and a bomb making industry, the fact there is a nuclear industry of some type would be discovered by the world. Therefore if you wanted to have a secret bomb making capability, it might be easier to also develop a nearly totally separate civilian industry, and hide the bomb industry within it (Security by obscurity), and limiting international scrutiny into your civilian industry. But, obviously, that’s a round-about way of getting a nuclear weapons capability: of what real purpose is it? Which countries would feel the need to do this as opposed to developing nuclear weapons by direct means? The risk of your bomb-making capability being made known by spies or bribery still exists. So the only countries that could possibly accomplish this task would be those that are nearly sealed off from the outside world. (There is only one country, North Korea, that fits the description. Iran is hated by the west, but it is well-integrated with all the countries in its region: it is not closed, and couldn’t keep large secrets.)

That a civilian industry provides cover for a bomb industry is a real concern that should be taken seriously. But accurate monitoring and analysis ought to take care of it. Western powers (and ESPECIALLY no nuclear-weapons powers like Canada or Korea, for example) should be much more interested in shaping nuclear industries in developing countries, especially by providing financing. Engagement, rather than disengagement, would LESSEN the risk of countries developing their own nuclear power industries to hide bomb making industries. Non-proliferators who say NO to expanding open, integrated and well-regulated worldwide nuclear power industries are only making proliferation, and hidden nuclear weapons programs MORE LIKELY.

George S. Stanford
9 years ago
Reply to  crf

Those who truly want to limit nuclear power’s potential to serve as a cover for proliferative activities, should deal with the reality of the nuclear renaissance, instead of throwing hissy fits.

Regardless of how many reactors a country operates, its nuclear program cannot serve as a cover for A-bomb development unless the program also includes an indigenous ability to process reactor fuel — either front end (uranium enrichment) or back end (plutonium extraction from lightly irradiated fuel).

A “supplier states” system, such as proposed by the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), would be a constructive start on the road to international oversight of fuel-processing activities. It would (a) liberate a country that wanted energy security from the need to have in-house fuel-processing facilities, and (b) foster a sense of physical security if its neighbors also were signed on.

The fly in the ointment, however, is that, for universal appeal, access to fuel services would have to be absolutely guaranteed, even for pariah states like North Korea or Iran. That problem has yet to be adequately faced, and is what the people truly worried about proliferation should be spending their time and effort on.

9 years ago

To be consistent, the nuke-proliferation-objection crowd should also require the world to stop agriculture. Some materials used in agriculture can be used to make bombs: