There are no "loose nukes" – Professor John Mueller, author of Atomic Obsession
On April 14, 2010, Democracy Now’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Amy Goodman interviewed John Mueller, author of Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda, and John Steinbach, who has studied Israel’s nuclear weapons program. The interview is worth replaying; it is gratifying to hear a recognized political science expert surprise relatively committed anti-nuclear journalists by telling them that their fear of “loose nukes” is not justified because the probabilities are so low.
Here is a key part of the transcript:
AMY GOODMAN: But Professor Mueller, why is it so hard for groups to get so-called “loose” nukes?
JOHN MUELLER: Well, mainly because they don’t exist. (Emphasis added.) No one has really been able to find anything that’s a loose nuke. If you did actually buy or sell—buy or steal a nuclear weapon, what you’d find is that it’s got a lot of locks on it, and there’s very few people who know how to unlock it. In the case of Pakistan, for example, they keep their weapons in pieces, so you’d have to steal or buy one half, find—go to another secure location and buy or steal the other half, somehow know how to put tab A into slot B, and set it off. The number of people—as I say, the number of people who know how to set them off is very small. The people who designed them are not—do not know how to set them off. And the people who maintain them do not know how to set them off. So just getting the bombs—and they also have locks on them which will, if tampered with, will cause a conventional explosion, which will cause the weapon itself to self-destruct, effectively, in a conventional explosion. So the danger is extraordinarily small (Emphasis added.), it seems to me.
Professor Mueller also makes a key point later in the interview when he says the following:
I think the probability that a terrorist could get or make a nuclear weapon is extremely small. But inexpensive measures to make that probability even lower are fine with me. What I’m concerned about is expensive measures to do so—for example, starting wars against Iraq or Iran, or doing things like inspecting every cargo ship, every container that comes into the United States, which is an extremely expensive process in itself, plus the disruption to the economy.
I am not sure if he would agree, but in my opinion the absolutely most expensive choice we could make out of inflated fear of “loose nukes” or the possibility of weapons proliferation is to continue to use that fear to slow or halt the deployment of nuclear energy systems. Constricting the supply of emission-free energy from concentrated, abundant sources like uranium and thorium makes the world a more dangerous place and contributes to the vast inequities of the economy by increasingly concentrating wealth into the hands of oil, gas and coal producers.
The most expensive thing in business is trying to prevent everybody else from succeeding. The cost of wars such as Iraq, absolutely dwarfs the cost of improving actual “defense” technology and nuclear deterrence. They also dwarf the cost of building nuclear plants / deterrence in the countries who feel threatened by Iran’s nuclear program. Competition can be a win-win for everybody when the players are fair.
Perhaps the best proof of how difficult it is to get hold of a loose nuke is the fact that none have ever been detonated. The Soviet Union disintegrated 20 years ago. If any of their nuclear weapons got into the wrong hands, I think we would have known about it by now. The Pakistan situation is potentially dangerous depending on who is in power, but it is good to read of their policy of storing their weapons in separate pieces.
On a slightly different topic, I would like to see journalists stop describing spent fuel reprocessing as producing “weapons grade plutonium”.
Weapons proliferation, such as it is, is not a terrorist problem. It is very unlikely that terrorists could capture a weapon, and even if they did, the safeties would prevent them from using it for anything but a store of special material. Even if terrorists were able to get a sufficient quantity of special highly enriched material, I seriously doubt that they could fabricate a weapon. Terrorists stealing reactor fuel for use in weapons is even more absurd, as the fuel is not usable for weapons without an incredible amount of processing not within the capabilities of non-state actors. Further, the type of capabilities needed to fabricate weapons are highly complex, require interdisciplinary talent, and are very expensive. Only states can really do it.
On the other hand, weapons proliferation between states and by states is more of a problem, one worthy of watching, but not one worthy of slowing down nuclear energy in any way.
I currently have a lead article up at Brave New Climate addressing the issue of HEU and the supposed threat of terrorist nukes.
My conclusions are similar to Pete’s & Dave’s. It has drawn some ire (surprise, surprise) from some of the regulars there.
Did you pick up on the comments that university research reactors need better protection so that the fuel is not stolen and made into a bomb?
Could someone please explain to me how the fuel is removed, by hand, and carried off site without causing a lethal dose? Why do nucs transfer exposed fuel/rods under water? Perhaps the new science advisor can help the nuclear power plants shorten refueling outage times by explaining how this is done.
My specialty was nuclear instrumentation and an exposed in-core-monitor had a 4000 rem @1 meter dose rate after one cycle! This for a piece of metal about the size of a pencil.
Rich – was that comment made on the clip that I posted? I watched it carefully and then searched the transcript and did not find any mention of research reactors.
Based on what I heard Professor Mueller say, I do not think he would be one of the people who agrees with the notion that the probability of making a bomb from reactor fuel is high enough to cause any concern or warrant expensive protective measures. I could be wrong, but he seemed pretty reasonable with his evaluation of the technical means and motives of non state actors when it comes to nuclear materials.
Sorry, was referring to the president’s comments at his loose nukes meeting, felt it fit here.
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