Lock and burn: a clean, peaceful way to prevent terrorists from stealing nuclear weapons

There is a lot of talk of nuclear terrorists these days, and it might be useful to walk through the scenarios in which terrorists might acquire nuclear weapons. Let’s start with the ones we can quickly rule out. At the top of the list is theft of used nuclear fuel from civilian power reactor sites. Used civilian fuel contains small quantities of the plutonium isotope that is suitable for nuclear weapons, and on that basis used fuel is regarded as a “sensitive” material and a possible target for terrorist theft.

In such a scenario, terrorists break into a nuclear plant, steal the used fuel, put it on a flatbed, then drive it down the road to their secret reprocessing plant, where they extract the plutonium and make a bomb. Since there is so little suitable plutonium in used fuel, the terrorists must steal a lot of it, which means that they’ll need a fleet of flatbeds. Somehow, this goes unnoticed by plant security, not to mention local police and national security agencies.

This scenario is absurd, even when you don’t consider how little plutonium the terrorists would get for their efforts. We really should not waste too much time worrying about it.

Terrorists would be much more likely to go after material that is more highly refined, stuff that can actually explode: the pure weapons plutonium and highly enriched uranium that were manufactured specifically for weapons. These materials exist in greater or lesser quantities in all of the nine states that currently possess nuclear weapons. When people talk about terrorist theft of this kind of ready-made nuclear material, they’re really talking about certain of these nine countries, specifically Russia and Pakistan.

Pakistan is a special case. The security of its nuclear arsenal depends, at least in part, on the ability of the government to avoid being overthrown or taken over by extremists. Even if the government manages to avoid that, there is no guarantee that it won’t turn a blind eye to the activities of another nuclear entrepreneur like A.Q. Khan. We must not forget that we owe the Iranian, Libyan, and possibly the North Korean uranium enrichment programs to Pakistan. It may well turn out that A.Q. Khan played Iraq and Iran off against one another during the 1990s, producing Iran’s current weapons program. Did the Pakistan government know what Khan was up to? We don’t know. It’s scary.

Walking through all the scenarios in which nuclear materials and/or expertise proliferate from Pakistan can make your brain hurt. But Pakistan is a perfect illustration of a cold reality that we all must face. A determined state will acquire the materials, equipment, and expertise to go nuclear. Preventing that from happening is not about preventing such countries from getting nuclear power reactors. It’s about convincing them that going nuclear will be more bother than it’s worth.

Pakistan is also a perfect illustration of the real nature of the alleged link between weapons and electricity. I’ll spare you the suspense: there is no link. Consider Pakistan’s situation in 1974. Three years earlier, the Indian army humiliated Pakistan in Bangladesh, which had up to then been East Pakistan. An entire territory lost, in 13 days. Then, in May 1974, India went nuclear. I don’t know exactly when or even if Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s president following the Bangladesh humiliation, uttered the phrase “we will eat grass, but we will have our bomb.” But following 1971 and 1974, you couldn’t find a country more determined than Pakistan to acquire the bomb. That sentiment propelled Pakistan into the nuclear club.

And what route did Pakistan take to get into the club? Mainstream anti-proliferation thinking would have predicted the plutonium route. Pakistan had a natural uranium–fueled, heavy water–moderated power reactor under its direct control: this was the Karachi CANDU (aka the KANUPP). Not only do CANDUs run on natural uranium and heavy water, you can refuel them without having shut them down first. This, according to mainstream anti-proliferation thinking, makes it possible to “cook” the fuel so that it contains as much plutonium-239 as possible.

Well, it turned out that Pakistan did not go with plutonium. Pakistan famously chose the uranium route. This was made possible when A.Q. Khan, who worked in the Netherlands for a company that was a subcontractor to the uranium enrichment company Urenco, stole designs for centrifuges and smuggled them into Pakistan. Pakistan eventually did get into the plutonium game, but again this was not by way of the KANUPP. Pakistan makes its plutonium in a dedicated production reactor at the Khusab complex.

While mainstream anti-proliferation thinkers were wringing their hands over the extremely remote but hypothetically conceivable possibility that Pakistan might extract weapons-usable plutonium from deliberately under-irradiated KANUPP used fuel, Pakistan was pursuing the far-easier enrichment end of the fuel cycle.

The used fuel route to proliferation is a myth, as the Pakistan example shows. In spite of this, talk to a mainstream anti-proliferation advocate today and you’ll get the same story about the alleged dangers of used reactor fuel. This while Iran, Libya, Saddam’s Iraq, North Korea, and of course Pakistan itself have shown that the enrichment route is the route of choice for proliferators.

As I mentioned in “The Doomsday Industry,” these doomsayers have agendas. They are anti-nuclear, and would love nothing more than to shut down the civilian nuclear industry in North America to make way for natural gas. As narrowly hypocritical and selfish as this is, it is also utterly contrary to their own stated aim, which is to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons. That is because the very nuclear reactors they want shut down are destroying, as I write this, literally thousands of nuclear weapons.

I refer to the Megatons to Megawatts program, an early post–Cold War agreement between the United States and Russia, whereby thousands of uranium-armed Russian warheads would be dismantled and their explosive blended down to levels suitable for power reactors, then turned into electricity.

When you burn this stuff in a reactor, you destroy it. Terrorists can’t steal something that no longer exists.

Megatons to Megawatts is something that should be touted from the heavens: it is the biggest example in history of beating swords into ploughshares. It is a productive corollary to the lockdown of nuclear material advocated by all who are against nuclear proliferation: call it Lock and Burn. It is also a triumph of diplomacy, which is our best hope of stemming nuclear proliferation. I’ll elaborate in an upcoming post.

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12 years ago

Using spent fuel from power reactors to make bombs from the plutonium is even more difficult than described here. The long residence time of nuclear fuel in a power reactor causes a mix of plutonium isotopes to form. This mix is significantly more radioactive than bomb grade plutonium. This makes it hard to handle. Even if a bomb were fabricated, the radioactivity would quickly destroy the chemical explosive triggers needed to make the bomb work. And even if this problem were solved, the bomb would fizzle, as the nuclear reactions would start much too soon (because of the isotope mix), before the imploded pieces reached optimum configuration.
Relative to all this, it is much easier to enrich uranium to make a bomb. The uranium may well be available locally. Why do it the hard way using spent power reactor fuel when there is an easier alternative?

Andrew Jaremko
12 years ago

Steve, thanks for the post. ‘Burn’ is the correct strategy for spent nuclear fuel, as well. The post An environmentally sound, energy-rich future (Part II) at Brave New Climate is a quick discussion of how to do it and all the benefits.