1. Rod – Another great Blog post. I know individuals who will sleep better after reading this information.
    Over the years, Atomic Insight Blogs have at times been posted late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. If heaven is just I would hope that you would also sleep peacefully after contributing, through education and better understanding, to the wellbeing of others.

  2. There was also an Atlantic article that rebutted the plutonium terrorist idea: implosion device. No terrorist will go through the bother of trying to attempt making an implosion device. Plutonium cannot simply be slammed together like high enriched uranium. Governments use either production reactors or enrichment for their weapons precisely because reactor plutonium confers no nuclear shortcut.

  3. Rod,
    This is well written, with a key evidence time line at the beginning. This article needs exposure in the press. I strongly request you to make one more edit pass, add some graphics, and begin the processing submitting for publication in Atlantic Monthly, or New Yorker, or Foreign Affairs, or some such respected magazine. [Nobody ever writes you back to say “no” so don’t wait more than a week before proceeding to the next editor.]

  4. Rod,
    I agree with you for the most part, and perhaps I am being overly precise here, but I have to take issue with just one thing you say:
    he US should stop worrying about the vanishingly remote possibility that commercial nuclear fuel recycling facilities could be cover operations for states with nuclear weapons ambitions or that they might be useful targets for nefarious folks.
    I feel like this is going a little overly broad; while I think the contention that “reactor grade” plutonium is a sub-standard material for sophisticated state actors and generally isotopically prohibitive for non-state actors, this does not mean the facilities for separating plutonium from spent fuel are useless. That is to say, the same facility that has a legitimate use for closing the fuel cycle can be put to nefarious use with enough determination, the same way an enrichment facility can. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage the development of closed cycles anymore than we should discourage uranium enrichment; we simply should be prudent about it, encouraging sensible accountability measures.
    Furthermore, there’s an issue of “can’t” versus “won’t” that comes up a lot in these debates. I’ve seen relatively recent studies from LANL (Bathke et. al.) on material attractiveness based upon consultations with weapons experts – I’d be happy to send you the full reference if you’d like. Their contention is that RGP is still an “attractive” material to a sophisticated state capable of developing the requisite workarounds, although increasingly less attractive with burnup. Their metric is based upon factors such as bare sphere critical mass, heat generation rate, and dose rate. (Also, spontaneous fission neutron rate for unsophisticated actors.)
    My point here of course is that the penalty incurred for RGP makes it likely that a dedicated proliferant state would likely pursue a direct route to WGP and could use facilities designed for benign purposes for malevolent ends – hence, common-sense accountability controls. Therefore, the “can’t” versus “won’t” – arguably, under the right conditions, some RGP *may* be usable, but the penalty incurred in doing so would make it more likely that they *won’t*. If they are going to proliferate, chances are they will find other ways to cheat accountability measures.

    1. @Steve – As I said in my post, it is difficult to prove a negative, especially when there are people with an opposing agenda, impressive looking credentials, and the ability to produce mind numbingly complex computations to prove their point.
      Here is my challenge – if it was possible, why hasn’t it ever been done by the experts who have had ample opportunity to do so? The ONLY evidence I can find of any of the weapons specialists ever attempting to actually make a weapon using RGP was that single test in 1962, and I think I proved pretty conclusively that the material was far different from the plutonium coming from commercial nuclear power plants today.

      1. For one, I think it proves my point precisely – it can be done, but the penalty makes it such that those with the ambition and capability (i.e., us) aren’t going to bother. That is, while workarounds exist, it is prohibitive to do so in light of other, available alternatives. “Can’t” versus “won’t.”
        I’m aware of some of the agenda of the anti’s, however I’ve met Chuck Bathke (the researcher behind the metric I was citing) on more than one occasion – he’s definitely no anti-nuke. The point he is trying to make is that simply there is no “proliferation-proof” fuel cycle, and that there will always be a need for reasonable safeguards. (Reasonable, of course, being the key word here.)

        1. Steve – I still do not agree. Though it cannot be proven to be impossible via computations, the physical challenge is apparently larger than the equations show. If there is a group of proliferants that are clever enough to figure out all of the hurdles – and remember what kind of team it took to build Fat Man – that same team would still choose the easier path of procuring natural uranium, building a production reactor and lightly irradiating that until they accumulated enough reasonably pure Pu-239 to do the trick.
          There is no way to eliminate natural uranium from the earth, so I guess we just need to live with the very remote risk. It sure beats the alternative of burning up all of the world’s valuable hydrocarbons in just another generation or two.

          1. Again, Rod, I feel as if we are talking past one another. By and large, we are in agreement, particularly if you go back and carefully read what I said. The matter of whether RGP is an inferior material is not in dispute, here – it is how inferior it is.
            Your comment actually says *precisely* what I just said – that given the extensive penalty for RGP, a proliferator with the sophistication to try and produce a weapon from RGP would likely instead just go the WGP route, namely because of the fact that there’s no reason NOT to. If they have the means to produce a weapon from RGP, chances are they have the means to go the dedicated WGP route as well, without the technical penalty.
            Hence, again my point – it is not a question of capability but *desire* which closes off this route – RGP is inherently less attractive than the WGP route. It is largely mooted by the likely alternatives which would exist in these cases.
            Your assertion has been that proliferations *can’t* take such a route – however, you have failed to address the very current, very real evidence to the contrary. What you have demonstrated – and in fact, what I emphatically agree with – is that they *won’t.* The matter that there is a significant penalty for using such material isn’t being disputed – not by me, not by the experts I referred back to. The argument I have made is that, while possible, most proliferators will choose a route of dedicated WGP for precisely these reasons. Can’t versus *won’t.* In this regard, we have no disagreement.
            That being said, we have safeguards in place for the very types of scenario propose; such safeguards are designed to prevent the use of undeclared facilities and the diversion of material from declared ones. We try and put a hedge against that risk – because I emphatically agree with you, it sure beats burning up hydrocarbons.

            1. @Steve – I guess we are talking past each other.
              My point is that the safeguards currently in place are inhibiting the use of nuclear energy – at least by the United States and our friends like South Korea. Some nations are smart enough to ignore our suggested restrictions.
              You said:
              “Your assertion has been that proliferations *can’t* take such a route, however, you have failed to address the very current, very real evidence to the contrary.”
              If I have failed to address evidence that there is a group somewhere that has the technical capacity available to the bomb builders at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project that has decided to put those rare capabilities to the task of building weapons using plutonium taken from commercially operated nuclear power plants, that is because I am unaware that any such evidence exists.
              As I said in the throat clearing initial sentence on this post – I have been struggling with trying to explain that whatever potential risk exists for that kind of project, it is low enough to be handled with minimally invasive safeguards. Namely, make sure that there is enough monitoring to verify that reactors are, in fact, being operated with reasonably high burn-ups. If a reactor operator has difficulty keeping the machine working properly, provide technical assistance and oversight to help overcome that issue. Resource the IAEA sufficiently so that its inspectors can be reasonably compensated and so they can travel where they need to in order to maintain effective relationships with the small number of people around the world that have the kinds of skills that would be needed.
              I recognize that my statements about the EXTREME improbability of used commercial fuel as the raw material rests on knowing that the material actually was used in a commercial manner.
              Some of my statements no longer apply if a reactor owner somehow has the ability to decide to lightly irradiate core materials without notice and decides to engage in long term cooperation with an entity that has the ability to put together and maintain in secrecy a team with the following resources:
              Technical Personnel
              Competence and thorough understanding will be required in a wide range of technical specialties. These include: shock hydrodynamics, critical assemblies, chemistry, metallurgy, machining, electrical circuits, explosives, health physics, and others. At least several people who can work as a team will be needed. These will have to be carefully selected to ensure that all necessary skills are covered, but they need not have been previously engaged in designing or building nuclear weapons.
              In addition to support for the personnel over a period adequate for planning, preparation and execution, a considerable variety of specialized equipment and instrumentation will be required, all or most of which can be obtained through commercial sources.
              Radiation, criticality, the handling of noxious materials and explosives all present potential hazards which will have to be foreseen and provided against.
              Assuming the operation is contrary to the wishes of the local national authorities the organization must exercise all necessary precautions to avoid detection of their activities. They would no doubt be faced by a massive search operation employing the most sensitive detection equipment available once it should be known that someone had acquired a supply of material suitable for use as an explosive.
              Very early in its planning and equipment procurement phase the organization will need information concerning the physical form and chemical state of the fissile material it will have to work with. This will be necessary before they can decide just what equipment they will need. The isotopic content of the material could be determined by straightforward means. The actual acquisition of the material would probably be the responsibility of a separate task force for which the problems and hazards would be those set by the safeguards and security authorities.”

              (Source: Reactor-Grade Plutonium’s Explosive Properties J. Carson Mark August 1990 while consulting for the Nuclear Control Institute. http://www.nci.org/NEW/NT/rgpu-mark-90.pdf)
              (to be continued in next comment)

              1. (continued from comment posted at 2:24:57 AM EDT on July 25, 2010)
                For academic observers, that is a rather simple listing of the specialized requirements. For me, it is a pretty good list explaining why such a team will never be put together and accomplish a society threatening mission. Engaging in a lot of society threatening activity aimed as adding additional layers of prevention is a bit like deciding to wear combat armor every day to work in a major US city. You might protect yourself from being killed by a sniper, but you will put yourself at risk of many other ailments and life threatening issues over time.
                I am a careful guy, but I recognize that focusing on preventing an already improbable event can expose you to additional risks and costs whose consequences are worse than the event you have chosen to protect yourself against.
                I have lived my whole life with the knowledge that there are several entities already with the means to blow up entire cities with a single delivered weapon. Why should I accept the counsel of people who tell society that the most important reason to stop developing and using a reliable, clean, affordable energy source is preventing another such entity from emerging?

                1. @Rod: Two things, but before that, I should again emphasize that by and large, I agree with your assessment; where I have taken issue is in the broad declaration of pure impossibility, rather than improbability, particularly in light of the fact that the resources required to weaponize RGP would just as likely be used to go down a strictly WGP route; i.e., it is difficult to imagine a scenario where a proliferant state would attempt to use RGP instead of WGP in a dedicated weapons attempt, given the additional technical penalty.
                  My two issues, however, are the following: 1) I think you are confusing “safeguards” with U.S. foreign policy, which involves hand-slapping regarding indigenous development of fuel cycle capabilities – such as you point out, our treatment of South Korea over pyroprocessing. This in my view (and I am certain yours) is a mistake, in particular because it destroys any leverage we have to ensure that such facilities are done safely and contain responsible levels of oversight. But this isn’t a matter of safeguards anymore – this is intrusive foreign policy. When I refer to “safeguards,” I am referring to basic material accountability measures – the kind any state signing up under the NPT is obliged to follow. (Well, weapons states notwithstanding, but that’s another issue). Further, I completely agree with you that such an attitude is completely wasteful – i.e., we’re throwing away most of a valuable energy resource over a problem that can by and large be managed.
                  One of the better compromises I’ve heard has been to encourage fuel leasing in the U.S., with take-back and closing the fuel cycle here, thus mooting the need for many states to develop their full fuel cycle facilities (with the attendant risks). I’m sure you see as I that this is a compromise at best, designed to appease those who believe nobody should develop these capabilities (despite the fact that absent these fuel services, they will). Unfortunately, this too is a long way off and generally speaking, dead in the water from a political sense.
                  The second (and bigger) issue however is your tendency to confuse those who are engaged in nuclear non-proliferation and safeguards because they want to advance the use of nuclear energy (like myself, and many others who specialize in nuclear engineering) versus those who use non-proliferation issues as a cudgel to try and kill nuclear energy. A pattern you’ll notice among the second is that they tend to throw out everything but the kitchen sink to try and kill nuclear energy – they say no, under any circumstances, to reprocessing over a chimeric series of reasons (“Proliferation risk! Uneconomical! Technically infeasible!”). It is in fact quite easy to make a distinction between the two, because the latter generally have no interest in proposing any kind of reasonable safeguards against misuse or diversion that ensure such facilities can be built and fully utilized, whereas this is the chief aim of the former.
                  To bring this about and fully address your point about risk; this kind of pathway analysis is something that is already going on in the (serious) non-proliferation community (as opposed to the unserious community of dedicated anti-nukes). Designing against the most likely pathways, along with looking for places where safeguards can have the highest impact for the lowest cost is part of what is being done right now.
                  I do think, however, that while one puts a deadbolt or two on the front door (i.e., WGP), it also makes sense to lock the windows (RGP). In other words, it makes no sense to make one’s front door completely impenetrable but leave a small bathroom window wide open; it might deter most thieves, but it foolishly leaves one open to risk by the most dedicated, particularly if we so successfully have closed off the main pathway. That being said, it takes much less to close off the alternative – simply close and latch the window.

                  1. @Steve – I know you think I am being unreasonable, but I have often found that compromise on technical or ethical matters is a sure route to failure. It may work in politics, but that is not my field.
                    I am not confusing safeguards with foreign policy because I am talking about the non-proliferation community as a whole, which is heavily involved in both safeguards and foreign policy.
                    I disagree with your analogy that RGP has a proliferation risk that is to WGP as an open door is to an open window. I think it is more like the risk between an open door and a tiny, well hidden crack in a building foundation that could be used as an access point by a very dedicated and skilled burglar with a lot of time on his hands. I also believe that the building being protected in this case does not have much of value inside, so getting into the building is not a sure route to wealth and power.
                    The whole NSG structure is a bit paternal and smacks of colonialism that establishes a virtual apartheid between the haves and have nots. There is great value over a very long time for nations that develop energy sources that cannot be controlled or manipulated by others. I am not a fan of energy independence, because I think that fair trading with others brings great value, but I am in favor of energy resilience. I never want to live in a place where another entity can try to tell me what to do and follow that up with threats to basis energy supplies. Power politics has involved those kinds of threats for more than 100 years. I happen to have been born in America, but I can easily envision what it would be like to have been born someplace like the barrios in El Salvador or in a village in Iran. Quite honestly, I cannot see much difference between the actions of the NSG and those of OPEC.
                    Having visited fuel cycle facilities and talked to business managers in companies that own them, I know that it is a pretty good business with a steady customer base. Why would a nation forgo a priori the opportunity to participate in that industry? That certainly is not required by signing the NPT and agreeing not to develop nuclear weapons.
                    Rod Adams

                    1. @Rod: I really think you are seeking mightily to find disagreement where there is quite little. 🙂
                      I agree with you that the structure of the NPT, and from it, the NSG, is quite paternalistic, and even borders on a nuclear apartheid. The compromise I point out is a way to clear the political logjam, not what I feel is the best technical solution overall – which again, is where we largely agree. But whether or not we should seek to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons overall is another question altogether (although again, I agree that they are not a guarantee of power and prestige, but rather a rather dangerous white elephant). I would caution you however of being casually dismissive of the threat of nuclear proliferation when communicating with the general public however, as this has been the strategy of the antis all along, particularly in making spurious links between civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
                      That being said, I think one has to acknowledge (even if grudgingly) that many fuel cycle facilities carry the potential for misuse – some obviously more than others. Assuming our goal is to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy as much as possible (and to the greatest extent that we can utilize this resource), some safeguards against malevolent use just seem prudent. Even if you do disagree with the idea of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, I would argue that the linkage of nuclear energy with weapons is inherently bad for business, especially in the mind of the public. In this sense, again, I look at *reasonable* safeguards and accountability (again with an emphasis upon “reasonable”) as a hedge against this; in this sense, I see a non-proliferation culture working for nuclear energy on an international scale the same way a safety culture has shown itself to be so essential within the industry domestically.

                    2. Though I might agree with Steve that it is possible but infeasible to use RGP, I have to disagree with placing safeguards on RGP beyond simple declarations and promises of peaceful use. Based on my knowledge (which is admittedly limited) more than nominal safeguards are not justified by the level of risk of RGP. I agree with the comparison of the RGP route by Rod to a “well hidden crack in the foundation”, that is probably already patched by concrete.
                      A simple promise not to use the RGP for weapons purposes along with, perhaps, a requirement for annual reporting on inventory processed, is a sufficient safeguard.
                      Resources to implement safeguards are scarce, therefore, it makes sense to focus on the critical paths that sane proliferators would likely take: enrichment, PUREX, and specialized components used in nuclear weapons (krytrons). Other forms of reprocessing – like pyroprocessing (which is absolutely harmless) – or the advanced forms of chemical reprocessing like TALSPEAK and SANEX, don’t need to be safeguarded beyond simple declarations and assurances.
                      The consequences of restricting the progress of fission – and thus, the energy needed to improve everyone’s lives – are far greater than the risk that some state could build a fizzle-bomb out of RGP.

    2. Based on what I’ve read, I tend to agree with Steve. Perhaps some state at the peak of its historical power could afford to build devices with RGP as an academic exercise. Maybe to challenge the interns one particularly boring summer at LANL?
      There is a distinction between impossible and infeasible. There are things that are impossible, like gravity suddenly being inverted, and everything falling upwards into the sky.
      There are things that are infeasible, for instance, were a million monkeys given typewriters and an unlimited supply of 8.5″ by 11″ paper, and each typed 3 characters per second, it is overwhelmingly likely that the heat-death of the Universe would come about before they typed a single Shakesperian sonnet. How unlikely? I’ve calculated the CSSSDF50 (Conditional Spontaneous Shakespearean Sonnet Derivation Frequency) of this number of monkeys to be a 50% chance of 1 Shakesperian sonnet per 3.80e687 years – yes, I did crunch the numbers – using a high level of simian conservatism, including perfect typewriters with numbers removed, capitalization and punctuation uncounted, and monkeys incapable of dying.
      Though I do put the likelihood of using RGP as the first choice of material to build bombs in a country’s attempt at proliferation as slightly greater than this highly conservative estimate of spontaneous Shakespearean sonnet generation, I do have to say that I consider it nearly as infeasible – because humans aren’t monkeys pecking away at typewriters, which is the equivalent of what starting a weapons program with RGP would be like.

  5. This is a superb article, Rod. Congratulations. It won’t convince anyone belonging to the ranks of the professionally unconvinced (ie, those who’s eincome depends on being unconvinced) of course, but if we refer to it often enough in debates the audience will start getting it.
    We should especially ram the point home that even with the scientific and technical resources of the US, LWR RPG was not considered for the test. The Pu came from a dedicated weapons production reactor.

  6. Rod, thanks for the great info.
    I concur that Tendrac is a good candidate for the test. There are about three or four other potential tests as part of Storax that might be the one we’re looking for. Those are the tests that I have been unable to eliminate based on other information, but Tendrac still seems like the best candidate.
    The yeild of the Tendrac test had to be very small. It couldn’t have been more than about two or three kilotons, maybe even only one kiloton. For one thing, it didn’t give a very good seismic signature on USGS seismographs in the western US. On some it barely even registered. Secondly, the test was conducted at only 300 feet depth and yet there is almost no visible surface subsidence crater. Today nothing is even visible, as it seems that any crater that was created was obliterated by the ground heave from nearby tests.
    This indicates it could not have been very powerful at all. Nearby tests of known yield and similar depth clearly indicate that only a very low yield test would have produced such little ground deformation.

  7. If I remember correctly, Carson Mark estimated the likely “fizzle” yield from a reactor-grade plutonium device would be on the order of 100 tons to 1 kiloton. Even going with the low number, how big of a bang would 100 tons of TNT produce? If it were detonated in the middle of a city, it could do quite a bit of damage. I don’t think any terrorist group has the wherewithal to separate plutonium from spent fuel, no matter what the Pu-239 percentage might be. And a state which is determined to produce a weapon isn’t going to bother with reactor-grade material. But we shouldn’t downplay what a “fizzle” could do, either. The other big problem with reactor-grade Pu is the heat interfering with the conventional explosives and other parts of the device. I don’t know if there are any adequate work-arounds for that.

    1. Pete, please remember that the Tendrac test was NOT RGP of the sort produced in a modern LWR.

  8. Here’s a possibly dumb question from a rank amateur, but here goes nothin’:
    Could a spent fuel rod – or some other form of pilfered nuclear waste – be used to breed Pu-239 in a “laboratory setting” rather than in a reactor, by lightly irradiating a blanket of natural uranium packed around it?
    And if so, could the Pu be PUREXed out of the blanket, by using a variation of Carl Willis’ “do-it-yourself” PUREX method: http://carlwillis.wordpress.com/2009/09/18/refining-uranium-by-the-purex-process/
    (Or would his process just work on Uranium, even though he calls it PUREX?)
    And if it could isolate Pu, then couldn’t a Fat Boy be cobbled together? (My guess is, even if a homemade Fat Boy totally fizzled, it would still scare the crap out of the entire planet.)
    Or am I just freaking myself out?

    1. From a spent fuel rod (or other waste form), no. Your neutron flux would be far too low to do anything productive, and the energy spectrum would be worthless for actually producing weapons-usable material. To selectively breed Pu239 over other Pu isotopes requires a specific, hard spectrum, and to generate any reasonable quantities requires a high flux. Spent fuel gives you neither.
      I’ve heard a couple talks on trying to use laboratory facilities like a spallation neutron sources or experimental fusion reactors, but frankly the quantities there are tiny as well – it would take years to generate enough to produce even one weapon, assuming none of this is detected. These are about as far-fetched as one reasonably gets; going below the flux levels available at these places basically renders it next to impossible.

      1. Got it. Thanks. I’ll calm down now. (I also just read Depleted Cranium’s article on how you can’t build a bomb from spent fuel. So that’s one less thing to worry about. 🙂

    2. Skinny Dog-
      Pu-239 is produced by irradiating U-238 with neutrons. You wouldn’t start with spent fuel or other ‘waste’. The most effective means of producing Pu-239 is by putting U-238 slugs in an operating nuclear reactor where there are lots of neutrons flying around. It is possible, theoretically, to expose the U-238 to neutrons from a different source other than a reactor, but I think that would tend to be very slow and it would take a long time to produce enough fissile material for a bomb.
      PUREX is the most common method of separating Pu and U from fission product waste in spent fuel, but it is a highly industrialized process. The radioactivity involved also significantly complicates matters. I really don’t see any private entity building a PUREX reprocessing facility. As described in the previous paragraph, you also need a nuclear reactor to produce the Pu-239 in the first place. Only countries really have the wherewithal to put the whole thing together, and I haven’t even mentioned the difficulty in designing and building an implosion system to detonate the weapon. North Korea, for instance, spent a considerable effort to produce a few weapons, but by most accounts those devices are somewhat inferior by US or Russian standards.

      1. Got it, and thanks for the info.
        But here’s another wild idea I’d like to throw at you: What if a control rod contained removable U-238 pellets instead of graphite?
        If a rod could be modified to function as a refillable pellet container, U-238 could be inserted into a regular power reactor, irradiated, and removed for PUREXing, without shutting down the reactor. (True, some loss of power production would result due to neutron absorption by the U-238, but would it be a dead giveaway?) The fake control rod could be filled with a second batch, re-inserted and irradiated, while the first batch was being PUREXed. (I’m guessing that there’s some redundancy built into the control rod system, so in case of an emergency the reactor could be successfully SCRAMed with the real control rods.)
        Hiding a PUREX operation to process enough pellets from which to extract enough Pu for a bomb in a reasonable length of time might be another matter, however. (Could Carl Willis’s do-it-yourself PUREX method be ramped up and still kept clandestine?)

        1. SD: “If a rod could be modified to function as a refillable pellet container, U-238 could be inserted into a regular power reactor, irradiated, and removed for PUREXing, without shutting down the reactor.”
          If, by a “regular power reactor” you mean a light water PWR or BWR, no, that would not work. The control rods do move into and out of the core, but they are not physically removed from the pressure vessel during operation. I am more knowledgeable of PWR control rods, and the rods themselves never leave the reactor vessel until refueling. I am pretty sure BWR control rods would have the same limitations. It may be possible to do something like that with a CANDU type reactor, but it would take a lot of pellets and it would be more trouble than it was worth. If you have a CANDU reactor and are intent on producing weapons-grade Pu, then you simply manipulate the fuel into and out of the core to produce the required Pu-239 concentration. Of course, you would need to do this without the IAEA or some other inspection agency finding out.
          SD: “(True, some loss of power production would result due to neutron absorption by the U-238, but would it be a dead giveaway?)”
          Actually, I think it would tend to increase power because you now have more uranium in the core. Most of the fuel is U-238 and it produces plutonium, which then fissions just like U-235. A uranium-loaded control rod would also obviously not function as a control rod, which would reduce the safety margin. But I guess they wouldn’t be concerned about that if they are going through all that effort.
          Bottom line – It is an interesting idea, but most nuclear plants are not set up to perform that sort of control rod manipulation. I also have doubts if enough material could be cycled into and out of the reactor in any reasonable amount of time.

  9. Emanuele Ottolenghi from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said this recently.

    1. Rick Maltese-
      Yes, the fusion for weapons is produced in a much different way than fusion in a tokamak or other machine for power generation. You do need to know something about the physics of fusion, and at the most basic level the nuclear reactions are the same, but that is pretty much where the similarities end. I don’t know what sort of ‘research’ the Iranians are doing into fusion, but if it is along the tokamak route, it would not have direct applications for weapons.
      What we do need to be concerned with, though, is the nuclear reactor the Iranians are building at Arak. This heavy water uranium reactor will be of a type suitable for producing real weapons-grade plutonium. And the Iranians have been reluctant to let the IAEA inspectors see what is going on there. Of all of the nuclear activities in Iran, this one could be the focus of their weapons efforts, assuming they want to make weapons.

    2. The scuttlebutt I read on this is that it’s probably a cover story, and that they actually intend to develop a hydrogen bomb. You need tritium and deuterium to embark on any sort of fusion experiments, and it just so happens that those are the same two isotopes that you need to convert a plutonium bomb into a hydrogen bomb.
      Kinda makes you wanna go hmmmmm……

  10. I think part of the difficulty in this discussion is what do we mean by reactor grade plutonium? It is RGP because most civilian nuclear power plants run their fuel to a particular burn-up. This causes the in-growth of undesirable isotopes, thus making nuclear weapon design increasingly difficult (but not impossible) as time progresses.
    So you can short-cycle a civilian power plant and have some pretty good stuff. There are ways to watch for this, but if you are in the business of selling power, not a good idea. Unless you are state-owned with a devious government, not really a problem.
    Also, as one moves from WGP to RGP there are very few nuclear design “cliffs.” The job just gets harder and harder (I mean, who wants to actively cool a weapon?) Could you, probably. Would you, probably not.
    At the end of the day, the reality is that there are easier and less risky approaches to nuclear weapon design than using modest-to-high burn-up civilian nuclear spent fuel.

  11. This 2005 Princeton University study concludes that Accelerator based production of Pu-239 or U-233 is practical, although probably about triple the cost of traditional methods. Likely a far easier and less detectable route than using RGP.
    “…Accelerators are a viable route to acquiring fissile material, though their benefits are very situation specific. The more advanced accelerators considered here

  12. There’s no need to be rude, Dave.
    I said in my first post that I was a rank amateur, and that I had a dumb question. In my second post, I floated what I myself said was a wild idea. Steve and Pete were polite enough to take the time to educate me. If you don’t want to follow suit, that’s perfectly fine. But realize that it serves no good purpose to wax derisive with a self-admitted amateur who is curious about the best hope for mankind’s energy needs. Nuclear energy needs all the fans it can muster. I’m one of them, and I’m certainly not going to go away because you have a dim view of my intellect. But others may wander off if they’re treated the same way, and that would be a shame. Not just for them, but for the entire world. As for the “home PUREX” process, you should cruise Carl Willis’s website and determine for yourself if he’s joking or not, and if he’s well on his way to a Darwin Award. Kirk Sorensen recently posted on Energy from Thorium that Mr. Willis is a “seriously impressive” guy, and that’s a good enough seal of approval for me.

    1. I apologize if you felt I was being rude to you. I didn’t mean to be. I don’t have a dim view of your intellect; your question was not dumb. I’m an amateur as well. I shouldn’t have said that “if a state was ‘stupid'”. I should have said that it would be a dangerous and unwise move for any state that would not yield them any benefits and would place those involved in such an attempt at extreme risk of harm, as well as endangering the facility.
      As for the “home PUREX” process, I was criticizing the fact that the gentleman is reacting organics with relatively concentrated (6 M) nitric acid, especially in what appears to be an uncontrolled environment. From what I understand, this is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, as first, heat is evolved by the reaction, and second, when you nitrate organics, you produce highly unstable compounds . The fact that this gentleman describes the process (humorously) as “straightforward for home chemists to exploit in order to refine their personal uranium stockpiles” without extensively discussing many of the safety steps necessary to take to ensure protection for himself and those around him gives me great concern that some kid, like one of those who builds one of the increasing number of fusors around these days (a very small fusion reactor of the inertial electrostatic confinement type that produces far less power than is inputted, but does, indeed, produce a neutron flux; can be done on a laboratory scale, some kids have built them at home, which is cool, provided safety is maintained) decides to nitrate organics in an attempt to follow this process, and unfortunate consequences result.

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