Prior to reading this article, it is recommended that you read our basic definitions for discussing nuclear science.
You can make a bomb out of used fuel, but it is non-trivial
Not all used nuclear fuel material is suitable for bombs, particularly the materials found in spent reactor fuel that has undergone a full cycle of use in a reactor. A variety of plutonium and uranium isotopes, the usual materials used to form the core of a nuclear warhead, are found in spent nuclear fuel. The issue is that they are quite difficult to separate from the rest of the material. It possible to do, but not easy. Making a bomb out of used fuel is not a simple process. Current techniques require sizable infrastructure for refining the fuel and extracting the plutonium. This is the sort of industry that the United Nations Security Council keeps a close eye on in the world today. There are very few nations with the scientific and industrial base necessary to build this sort of industry who do not already have nuclear weapons or have chosen to not create them.
This is a point often missed by people who lobby against using nuclear power or nuclear fuel reprocessing. They do not realize that a large part of the developed world has both the technical affluence and the available physical resources to create nuclear weapons and yet have chosen not to. The ‘nuclear club’, those nations who possess nuclear weapons is only composed of The United States, Russia, The United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and probably Israel. There are many wealthy nations that possess nuclear power plants who do not have nuclear weapons such as Canada, Germany, Japan, Finland, South Korea and many others. For the full list see Wikipedia’s article on Nuclear Power By Country. These countries have chosen to use their technical ability to create prosperity rather than weapons. This is important because these countries demonstrate that it is by no means a certainty that development of nuclear power technologies leads to availability of weapons.
There will be more spent fuel to look after
This is true if the status quo regarding reprocessing continues. With our current system of once-through fuel use for most nuclear reactors, the volume of used nuclear fuel will certainly increase. With increased volume of fuel comes increased difficulty in transport, safety, accounting, and security. As more fuel is used and goes into various kinds of storage, the possibility that a mistake will be made somewhere does go up. In short, it makes thefts of used nuclear fuel more likely.
Someone can steal the fuel
So in the case that someone steals used fuel, they will still need to acquire access to refining equipment if they wish to make a nuclear weapon. In order to get the used fuel to their equipment they would need to transport, most likely over quite a large distance, incredibly dangerous material. Nuclear fuel has many ‘features’ that make it extremely hard to steal. For starters, the developed world keeps a very close eye on it. The regulations regarding the safekeeping and transport of nuclear waste are quite stringent, and rightfully so. The developed world does not like the possibility of widespread nuclear armaments. Used fuel is a military asset and is usually very closely watched by the militaries of the developed world.
Secondly, used nuclear fuel is highly radioactive. There are a variety of containers employed for the storage and transport of nuclear fuel, all designed to be safe as well as conspicuous. It would not be easy to hide and smuggle a used nuclear fuel bundle in its normal container. If someone changes the container, they risk exposing themselves to large amounts of radiation and toxicity. Assuming that someone can steal the fuel without alerting the military and move it into a container of their own that can correctly shield them from the radiation, they would have a better chance of smuggling the fuel elsewhere.
Lastly, radiation is something we can detect. If fuel went missing, it is possible that instrumentation used by the military would be able to detect nuclear fuel unless it is inside extremely good shielding. It is important to keep in mind that there are several different kinds of radiation being emitted by used fuel. Shielding all of them enough that they are undetectable nearby would require an impressive container. Such a container is technically possible, however.
Do ‘they’ need to steal the fuel?
It is possible to create weapons-grade plutonium without creating electricity for a power grid first. This is accomplished using systems similar to those used during the Manhattan Project. These systems basically consisted of a large amounts of uranium close to each other with a moderating material in between. Fissions would take places as well as neutron-capture events that turn uranium-238 into plutonium-239, a popular weapon material. If a country has access to uranium ore and the industry mentioned above, they can eventually build a crude nuclear weapon. We say crude because this technology took extremely wealthy nations a long time to perfect, and early bombs were nowhere near as powerful as more modern ones, even without considering the fact that we now use hydrogen bombs which are an additional order of magnitude more difficult to produce.
Protecting used fuel in the developed nations still makes tremendous sense, but it seems crucial that we also pay close attention to the development of industry that can separate out weapons materials such as plutonium-239. These are some of the actions that are being taken already by the United Nations to suppress the chances of weapons proliferation in the world today. The political will of the UN Security Council seems to be steady on this issue. They do not want weapons proliferation for several reasons. First of all, nuclear weapons terrify most of the people in the developed world. It would be political suicide in the developed world to advocate policies that clearly lead to weapons proliferation. Secondly, nuclear weapons are part of the reason why the UN Security Council has the members that it does. The superior military power of the members of the nuclear club is not something they would like to see taken away from them. At the very least this is an area in which they do not want a level playing field where many states have nuclear weapons.
Megatons to Megawatts
Thanks to this joint program between the United States and Russia, hundreds of tons of highly enriched uranium has been down-blended and used in United States nuclear reactors as fuel. This program has turned a huge amount of weapons-grade material into both useful energy and resulting material that is no longer easily used for weapons.
Programs such as these are a crucial part of the nuclear disarmament of the world. Since much of the world uses uranium as an electricity source, it is guaranteed that the market price remains relatively high. A high market price encourages the dismantling of nuclear weapons and the safekeeping of the uranium stockpiles not just because they are dangerous but because they are incredibly valuable. It has been noted that without this program it is likely that the Russian stockpiles would not have been as well-cared-for in the time following the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Closing the nuclear fuel cycle
New reactor designs exist in various stages of development that make significant progress towards closing the nuclear fuel cycle. What this means is that there would be less nuclear waste from a system such as this. In theory it may be possible to someday design and engineer a system that will produce only very, very small amounts of waste.
These designs exist primarily on paper, but some of them have been prototyped in the past. We have good reasons to believe that many of them have significant merit, but scale prototypes are necessary to refine their construction and operation. We can currently make estimates on cost, but there are generally a large number of unknown or uncertain variables that will affect the cost of these theoretical reactors.
A lot of research is still required to be confident that these reactors can actually deliver as expected. The possibilities for future development are compelling because it seems possible to design reactors that are more safe, reliable and inexpensive along with reduced proliferation risk. Some of these designs have systems wherein the fuel never leaves the reactor site for reprocessing. The reprocessing system is designed into the power plant so that there should not be a need to move large quantities of used fuel around for reprocessing and then redistribution. Each of these reprocessing systems would have to be very inexpensive in order to include one economically with each power plant. This is noteworthy because reprocessing facilities for today’s fuel cycle cost several billion dollars.
Reprocessing techniques usually involve chemically working with the fuel between intervals where it is in the reactor. There are a number of approaches which will not be elaborated upon here. Suffice to say that there seem to be some practical proposals for safe and affordable nuclear power sources that will help reduce the threat of proliferation. This is claimed because they have some or all of the following properties:
- they can burn up some of our current stockpiles of nuclear waste.
- they can be used to burn up weapons-grade materials, reducing the volume of nuclear stockpiles.
- the fuel cycles are designed so that the fuel is never in a state in which it is easy to steal and separate out plutonium or any other material useful for building nuclear weapons.
Nuclear technology brings dangerous knowledge
If we say that advancing science in this area will bring about a more dangerous world, we are relying on a number of premises. First, we are assuming that some facet of whatever we learn can be applied to hurt people. This is a reasonable assumption since every major technological development in recent history has brought with it more possibilities for making weapons and war.
On the other hand, an equally valid argument is that the forward march of science has brought with it increased health, safety, and enjoyment for much of the world. The same chemistry that unlocked the dangers of guns and bombs made possible almost every facet of the modern era. Everything from the materials that make our homes and cars to the food we eat and the medicines we consume owes part of its intellectual heritage to basic chemistry. With advancing science comes an empowerment of humankind. It is clear that this power can be used by humans to do harm to each other. The question is whether it will be used as such.
This brings us to the second premise, that the net effect of our advancing knowledge in this area will be negative. That is, the additional danger outweighs the possible benefits. Humans will use this advanced technology more for evil than for good. This premise assumes that regardless of the good or evil nature of those people who develop additional energy technologies, their discoveries will lead to horror and pain for humankind.
For the purposes of discussion, the worst-case scenario is one in which the people developing the technology are the ones who will use it. That is, the most advanced nuclear nations in the world–the USA, France, the UK, Russia and China–will choose to use their powers for evil. In this case, they already have the power to do so. Fearing them is moot in this discussion.
A more reasonable scenario is that the technology or the materials involved will be stolen by someone else, and used for evil. For this discussion, see the above section on about how someone can steal the fuel. The scientific discoveries have shown that these weapons that we all fear so much are thankfully relatively hard to build. The fact is that the personal stance on nuclear weapons is rather homogeneous throughout the world. People fear them, and rightfully so. Those nations that consider producing them are quite likely acting somewhat in their own self defense. Ownership of a nuclear arsenal is pretty much guarantee that no one is going to invade you. Much of the world fears and distrusts the nuclear powers because they quite literally have doomsday machines, and that isn’t something most people want to exist at all.
How can we reduce the world’s nuclear weaponry?
Hampering the development of nuclear power plant research or construction will not change the fact that nuclear arsenals exist. Nor will it stop the creation of weapons by nuclear club countries that choose to build them. What these actions might do however is change the markets enough that uranium and other nuclear materials become easier to obtain. In this case there would be little to no valuable use for the existing stockpiles and industry except to build weapons, and sell them to the highest bidder. The economics of the arms industry are terrifying to peace loving citizens of the world.
We should instead look for actual solutions to the problems at hand. The world has nuclear arsenals that should never be used except perhaps to defend the earth itself from an asteroid collision or something similar. That specific issue requires very impressive rocketry, astronomy, and navigation, but not very much of a nuclear arsenal. If the political will is there, the developed world can continue to lead a disarmament of the world. We have shown that we as a species are politically capable of cutting down our weapons stockpiles. It is the responsibility of each and every peace-loving citizen of the world to support the continued reduction in nuclear arms.
The political will also currently exists in the nuclear nations to ensure that other nations do not acquire the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Yes they have failed to stop the development of all such weapons, North Korea being a notable example. This is one area however that the citizens of the nuclear nations should stand together on. It should make abundant political sense for the nuclear nations to present a united front with regards to their dedication to stopping the development of nuclear weapons in the world. Of course this is only really morally justifiable if these same nations undertake substantial nuclear disarming of their own militaries as well as take steps to guarantee that they will not be used against other human targets. It is the responsibility of every citizen to make it be known that this is their clear wish for the direction of their country.
Supporting the economics of the nuclear power industry makes sense. If nuclear materials are highly valued and profitable in terms of energy, there will be a disincentive to create weapons with them. There will also be additional incentive to safeguard them against theft and misuse. Thus it makes sense to support the continued research into newer and cleaner forms of nuclear power so that this industry can continue to exist and improve.
The nuclear power plants that are currently being built and used in the world are by no means ideal. They leave a lot to be desired in a number of areas that we have gone into here and elsewhere on this site. What we as concerned citizens of the world should support is better fuel management and use. Advanced reactors, if we support their research and construction, should be capable of reducing the amount of material in the world that can be made into weapons. It is also the case that many of todays reactors can help reduce our used fuel stockpiles, if we support the use of reprocessing technologies. Many of todays reactors can use reprocessed fuel, but do not for economic and political reasons. With broad based support and subsidization from the citizenry in the interest of peace, these disadvantages of reprocessed fuel will go away.
Economically, reprocessed fuel is currently a bit more expensive than fuel that has been created out of natural uranium. This difference in price is not necessarily permanent. It is expected that eventual advancement in reprocessing technology will lead to economic advantages over fuel freshly created from natural uranium. Additionally, proposed fuel cycles for next-generation reactors are expected to employ much less expensive reprocessing techniques. These techniques are less expensive because these newer fuel cycles are being designed with economics and safety in mind rather than bomb-making. The main fuel cycle of currently existing nuclear power plants owes its origin to weapon development programs such as the Manhattan Project in the United States. These fuel cycles were designed in an effort to create a nuclear weapon as fast as possible. That is, the currently used fuel cycle was purposely selected because it seemed to be the easiest and fastest way to create the materials for nuclear weapons. In this sense it makes abundant sense for us to support the development of safe reprocessing techniques for currently existing fuel as well as support the development of advanced fuel cycles and advanced reactors that are designed to be safe, economic, and proliferation-resistant.
Politically, reprocessing is currently held back because people fear that the same facility and techniques could be used to separate out weapons material rather than for reprocessing fuel. It is true that some modern reprocessing facilities could be used to separate out weapons material from used fuel. This can only happen however if the people running or overseeing the facility choose to do that. The national governments of the nuclear club keep a close tab on their reprocessing facilities. It should be made clear that the creation of weapons material in these facilities would only be possible if the government allowed it to happen. If the populace is unyielding in its commitment against the construction of nuclear weapons, the government would be forced to act out these wishes. In the case of the nuclear club, this point is moot because they already have nuclear arsenals. For those countries of the developed world that do not have weaponry, this is also moot because they have chosen not to create arsenals. Non-nuclear nations may not have the chance of developing this sort of technology or facility due to international pressure. These nations would possibly be able to negotiate a reprocessing agreement with a peaceful nuclear nation that already performs reprocessing such as Japan.
It makes sense to support advanced reprocessing in order to reduce the amount of used nuclear fuel we have to keep safe in the future. Supporting advanced reprocessing would mean that we would be taking some of the burden off of future generations to store and deal with our used fuel. All things considered, supporting reprocessing makes sense in a global scheme of nuclear disarmament. Citizens should educate themselves on the basics of the matter as presented here and elsewhere, and make their choice. The question of whether reprocessing will continue to be pursued is primarily a question of whether the people of the nuclear nations will support it.
Does nuclear power increase weapons proliferation?
Arguments can certainly be made to support either side of this argument. This article gives examples of valid arguments on both sides of the issue. In general it is clear that understanding of nuclear energy fundamentals is a prerequisite for creating nuclear weapons. In this area however, the proverbial cat is out of the bag. Pandora’s box has been opened. The knowledge exists and is relatively widespread. The real question is what to choose to do with the knowledge that the world now has.
The developed world does not want nuclear proliferation, so they take measures to guard against it. Some argue that these measures are not enough. Some argue that nuclear power plants are contributing to a proliferation problem by increasing the availability of nuclear materials such as used fuel. On the other hand it can be argued that nuclear power plants are steadily using up the world’s supply of nuclear warhead material, and also that their used fuel is in a state that makes it very difficult to turn into a nuclear weapon.
It is possible to do however, which is the crux of the argument. This possibility however depends entirely upon advanced technology necessary for extracting certain isotopes of plutonium and uranium from the fuel. This technology is carefully watched for by the nuclear nations. In order for a rogue state to develop a nuclear weapon in this way, they would have to hide their advanced equipment from the countries in the world with the most powerful militaries and economies, and the most extensive intelligence networks on the planet. The rogue state has drawn the short straw in this situation. It seems to be incredibly difficult to create a weapon without the developed world learning about it.
Stealing a completed weapon might be easier, but would likely require advanced military ability or espionage, both things that the nuclear nations also pay very close attention to. Regardless, stealing a completed weapon is not the focus of this discussion. This discussion is about whether using nuclear power for electricity contributes to proliferation risk.
Lastly, newer conceptions of the nuclear power plant should be capable of producing extremely little waste. They should also be capable of using up some of our currently existing stockpiles of used fuel if reprocessing techniques are supported politically. Some of these proposed reactors are developing a large following because of their planned practicality, safety, and anti-proliferation properties. Fuel in some of these reactors is never in a form that is easy to turn into a bomb. Reactors such as these are a logical next step for the fission industry. Capable of burning up the used fuel stockpiles of the world, these reactors may one day end our fears of nuclear proliferation because there will be no more substantial nuclear material stockpiles.
Our conclusion is that development of nuclear power that is properly managed and regulated should not lead to increased proliferation risk. With the correct political will and backing, nuclear power can lead to a much safer world, especially if development of advanced reactors and reprocessing facilities is supported and carefully regulated by the concerned citizens of the world. It is our opinion that research into these advanced technologies deserves our support because they have such tremendous potential to better the lives of all humanity. The application of these technologies for good rather than evil depends on the courage of the citizen of the developed world to make clear to their government that they want to live in a safer world with minimal nuclear stockpiles and conscientious management of our nuclear materials to maximize the benefit and minimize the risk that these materials embody.
This article is part of our nuclear myth and fact project.