Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Nuclear power and terrorist proliferation of nuclear weapons

with 5 comments

Is the plutonium that is potentially formed within certain types of fuels in nuclear fission power reactors really suitable for the construction of nuclear weapons? How accessible and usable is such plutonium for such a purpose? How hard would it be to construct a nuclear weapon employing such material? Could terrorists steal nuclear fuel from a nuclear power reactor and construct a working nuclear explosive device, practice?

What characteristics would such a device have? Given the terrible power of nuclear weapons, and the very real threat of terrorists who would love nothing more than to wield such power, these are perhaps important questions to consider.

I assert that, no, there is no real threat here that is anywhere near as plausible in the real world as it is sometimes beaten up to be. Can terrorists steal nuclear fuel, and build a nuclear weapon? No. I don’t think so.

I mainly just wrote this because (i) I just wanted to get this off my chest, and it’s good to have a go at the unrealistic nonsense that gets bandied about without any real factual evidence to back it up, and (ii) because I found the Kessler paper interesting.

This little piece of writing of mine owes a lot to the always entertaining and scientifically interesting posts of NNadir, especially this one, and this one, where I was pointed to the interesting publications of Kessler and colleagues. Love your work, NNadir 🙂

My little essay is here (PDF format).

Pointing out of typos, peer review, comments, grammatical suggestions and other interesting discussion and feedback is appreciated.
(I know the sentence is too long in the last paragraph on page 5, and there’s a typo on the first line of page 13. Those are fixed in the CVS. 🙂 )

I hope you find it enjoyable, interesting and/or useful.

5 Responses

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  1. I appreciate your impartiality towards nuclear power. I used to work in a nuclear power generating plant in Oregon, USA and felt it was very safe. Our state had higher safety standards than the federal nuclear regulatory commission. Anti-nuclear activists demonstrated frequently against it, however, and the power company decide finally to shut it down because of “obsolescence” Thus the local community lost many jobs.

    Having said that, I worked on the “maintenance shutdowns” and for some reason nuclear plants seem to have high maintenance piping and thus cost somewhat more to maintain. I would not be so concerned about nations with high security developing nuclear power, but what about unstable countries? One of my fear’s is that Iran may try to encourage other countries in the Middle East to go for nuclear power—after all they want to modernize (can’t blame them for that) and nuclear is a proven technology. However, should places like Libya or Egypt or Somalia have nuclear material? We already have headaches with Iran and North Korea and also Pakistan.

    Perhaps it would be better to sell them wind and solar technology or other alternative energy systems. This would open up some new markets for exports from Western countries—-and do it before China gets in on the act. I don’t know how much harm Iran could do with a solar power plant or, perhaps microhydro projects. Not too much, I think.

    Just my thoughts…..

    Ron Swaren

    March 2, 2009 at 11:48 pm

  2. nuclear power concentrates energy production, huge capital and high security – a very bad mix as any student of history can tell you. bad things happen – see the movie Silkwood.
    Big business cannot be trusted with that much power (excuse the pun). Multiple, small, locally relevant power production sites are better all around. they are good for communities and do not concentrate massive influence with the sharks who have brought us to the edge of financial ruin.
    big is not beautiful, it is dangerous.

    remember John Howard sold his soul to GW Bush, why would yoy trust anything he supports ?

    robina creaser

    March 3, 2009 at 4:58 am

  3. I understand the Brits detonated several plutonium dirty bombs at Maralinga SA circa 1960. The ‘plutonium’ which I’d guess was a mixture of isotopes was wrapped around chemical explosive and launched by tethered balloon. The largest contained 22kg of radioactive material. I also believe every year world wide several kilograms of the plutonium decay product americium is used in smoke alarms.

    Surely if Iran must allow the nuclear inspections the same goes for Israel.

    John Newlands

    March 6, 2009 at 1:13 am

  4. I like the The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). The LFTR is a very simple, efficient, and elegant type of reactor. It can use any kind of nuclear fuel, bomb material, or nuclear waste product to produce very high temperature heat and at the same time breed more fuel in the bargain. This thrifty approach to nuclear energy greatly appeals to me, but I became even more interested in the LFTR when the details of a new patent were revealed by Dr LeBlanc (see below @ minute 53). It opens up the possibility of building a reactor that can run for 30 years without refueling in an unattended mode sited underground while it breeds new fuel within the thorium structure of the reactor itself. In order to get to this U233 that has been produced inside the very walls of the reactor containment vessel, a proliferator must destroy the reactor, chop it up into small pieces while enduring heavy gamma radiation exposure without being detected, then reprocess these reactor pieces using isotopic separation since the U233 is denatured with enough U238 to make chemical separation of bomb grade U233 impossible. Now, this is a tall order for any proliferator and may just be an impossible assignment.

    At the end of the service life of the Lftr, the reactor vessel is sent back to the factory where it is reduced to liquid fluoride salts that become the feedstock of a next new Lftr. This feedstock can only be used by the new Lftr and not for bombs. The waste products are held at the factory for a few hundred years to cool down before they are mined for the many precious elements contained within like platinum and iridium. Now that’s what I call a safe, efficient and thrifty mode of operation!

    For more information see the following:

    What Fusion Wanted To Be

    Liquid Fluoride Reactors: A New Beginning for an Old Idea


    March 8, 2009 at 6:04 am

  5. Hi Luke,

    I finally read your essay, but had trouble remembering where I got it from (I am not a regular visitor of your blog, but will try to improve on that…). Please put your name on it and the url from where it can be downloaded. I would like to distribute it, and the risk is that I forget about your blog again.
    It’s a very nice piece of work, very convincing, but I will try to identify any weak spots.


    March 30, 2009 at 1:26 am

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