Monday, January 14, 2008

The Proliferation Danger: Khan Reality and Caldicott Fantasy

A.Q. Khan was a Pakistani scientist, spy and master criminal. Khan is a villain right out of a James Bond movie. Nobody who is really concerned about nuclear proliferation can talk about it without talking about Khan. Khan and his criminal nuclear technology smuggling ring played an important role in the development of the atomic weapons program in Pakistan, North Korea, Libya and Iran. In addition Kahn attempted to sell nuclear technology to Iraq in 1990, and to Syria. The recent Israeli bombing raid on Syria appears to have been related to Khan originated nuclear technology that was sold to Syria by North Korea. North Korea is under great international pressure to give up the centrifuges that got through criminal dealings with Khan.

Anti Nuclear power advocate Helen Caldicott claims: "[N]uclear power plants are essentially atomic bomb factories. A 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor manufactures 500 pounds of plutonium a year; normally ten pounds of plutonium is fuel for an atomic bomb. A crude atomic bomb sufficient to devastate a city could certainly be crafted from reactor grade plutonium. Therefore any non-nuclear weapons country that acquires a nuclear power plant will be provided with the ability to make atomic bombs (precisely the issue the world confronts with Iran today). As the global nuclear industry pushes its nefarious wares upon developing countries with the patent lie about “preventing global warming,” collateral consequences will include the proliferation of nuclear weapons, a situation that will further destabilize an already unstable world."

We have seen in our discussion of nuclear waste that the plutonium produced by light water reactors is typically reactor grade plutonium. Caldicott seems to believe that reactor grade plutonium is ok for "crude" nuclear weapons, but this would not be the case, if it had been, Kahn would not have gone into the centrifuge smuggling business. Khan's entire international criminal nuclear proliferation business was built on producing weapons grade enriched uranium. Caldicott entirely ignores Khan's actual proliferation activities in her assessment of nuclear proliferation.

In order to be safe and effective, and not kill their makers, indeed for the makers of nuclear weapons with reactor grade plutonium to be assured that their weapons will not blow up in their hands, the makers of "reactor grade" plutonium bombs would require very sophisticated materials handling facilities, plus an extremely sophisticated weapons design. Despite the availability of plenty of reactor grade plutonium during the cold war, no nuclear power ever produced a nuclear weapon designed "reactor grade" or even "fuel grade" plutonium weapon. The United States did explode a device made with sub weapons grade plutonium in 1962. Its design has never been discussed for obvious reasons. The Defense Department hints that the 1962 test device was not a normal atomic bomb: "The disadvantage of reactor-grade plutonium is not so much in the effectiveness of the nuclear weapons that can be made from it as in the increased complexity in designing, fabricating, and handling them." Undoubtedly the bomb designers at Los Alamos came up with a brilliant solution to the problem. It is likely that the 1962 "devise" was considerably larger and heavier than the average nuclear weapon.

"Fuel grade" plutonium contains more that 7% and less than 19% of Pu240. There is speculation that the 1962 test device was a "fuel grade" device, with about 10% Pu240. No nuclear weapon has ever known to have been manufactured with "fuel grade" plutonium. Most of the "reactor grade" plutonium produced in light water reactors will be burned in the normal operations of those reactors. The ability to produce some reactor grade plutonium is an attractive feature of power reactors, because the plutonium adds to the nuclear fuel that powers the reactor. Light water power reactors make very poor Plutonium breeders. About 24% of the plutonium produced in light water reactors is Pu240, whose radioactivity and capacity for spontaneous fission makes it a very undesirable for use in nuclear weapons.

Despite possessing a light water reactor capable of producing large amounts of reactor grade plutonium, North Korea is believed to have built three graphite reactors capable of producing weapons grade plutonium.

Certain reactor designs are required to produce weapons grade plutonium. Weapons grade plutonium is produced by graphite or heavy water moderated reactors, burning natural, rather than enriched uranium. The uranium fuel is swapped out quickly to prevent the amount of Pu240 from building up to undesirable levels. Light water power reactors are far more expensive to build than plutonium producing graphite piles, and the enriched uranium used in a water cooled reactor would be considerably more expensive, and far more difficult to obtain than natural uranium.

Thus a non-nuclear power wishing to obtain plutonium nuclear weapons would find it far cheaper, far less complex, and far more reliable, to build a graphite pile reactor, using natural uranium, rather than running a rapid fuel cycle in a light water reactor to produce weapons grade Plutonium. India and Israel appear to have used heavy water reactors to produce weapons plutonium, but the sale of heavy water is regulated on the world market to prevent further proliferation. It would take a Khan to obtain the amount of heavy water needed for a weapons grade plutonium weapons program, and Dr. Khan would rather sell you Uranium centrifuges.

There is a further absurdity. Building light water power reactors in the United States does not help Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Thus it is totally irrational to argue that because of the danger that countries like Iran might obtain nuclear weapons we should not build reactors in the United States. If American power reactors were useful tools for nuclear proliferation, we would not sell them to states that we don’t want owning nuclear weapons.

Why then would Helen Caldicott claim that reactor grade plutonium is a likely candidate for the building of atomic weapons? The most likely answer is that she has a limited understanding of nuclear physics, and that she simply is unaware of the problems inherent in weaponizing "fuel grade" plutonium, let alone "reactor grade" Plutonium. Dr, Caldicott would be then speaking and writing out of ignorance. But what if Dr. Caldicott does understands the problems posed for bomb constructors using "fuel" or "reactor grade" plutonium? In that case she would simply be lying to us.

Dr. Caldicott is clearly believes that the world is divided between good and evil with no shades of gray. She believes herself to be a champion of the good against evil. Anyone who has anything to do with producing chain reactions in Dr, Caldicott's mind is evil, and allied to the demonic. Thus she writes, "The global nuclear industry pushes its nefarious wares." Nefarious means, "extremely wicked, villainous, iniquitous, heinous, infamous; vile, or atrocious." No doubt Dr. Caldicott believes that by fighting nuclear power she is fighting evil incarnate, but there is a delusion there. Most new reactors are going to be sold, not to "developing countries with the patent lie about “preventing global warming,” but to countries that already posses nuclear weapons or reactor technology. These would include the United States, the nations of the EU, Canada, India, and China.

Caldicott claims: "Contrary to the nuclear industry claims, smoothly running nuclear power plants are also not emission free. Government regulations allow nuclear plants “routinely” to emit hundreds of thousands of curies of radioactive gases and other radioactive elements into the environment every year." In fact, while they are at work workers in nuclear power plants receive radiation exposures that are similar to what they would receive outside of the plant due to background radiation. The Three Mile Island accident produced radiation exposures similar to what people receive in medical x-rays. Thus Dr. Calficott's implied claims about radiation exposures from nuclear power plants is at best hysterical and at worse out right dishonest.

Caldicott claims: "Thousands of tons of solid radioactive waste are presently accumulating in the cooling pools beside the 103 operating nuclear plants in the United States and hundreds of others throughout the world. This waste contains extremely toxic elements that will inevitably pollute the environment and human food chains, a legacy that will lead to epidemics of cancer, leukemia, and genetic disease in populations living near nuclear power plants or radioactive waste facilities for many generations to come."

Surly Caldicott is not stupid enough to believe this. It is true that spent fuel is kept at nuclear plants. But environmental contamination is hardly inevitably, nuclear fuel grows steadily safer with time, and populations living near nuclear power plants fail to see significant spikes of cancer, leukemia, and genetic disease as Dr. Caldicott well knows.

"Nuclear power is exorbitantly expensive, and notoriously unreliable." In fact in 2001, it cost 1.8 cents to generate a KWh of electricity at a nuclear plant. At coal-fired plants a KWh cost 2.3 cents. Hydroelectrically generation was cheaper,

Critics on nuclear power often claim that the simple existence of nuclear generating facilities will lead to terrorists either acquiring nuclear weapons, or turning the facility itself into a nuclear weapon. First let us examine if it is practically possible for terrorists to obtain the material to make nuclear weapons. The most common notion put forward by nuclear critics is that plutonium produced in reactors will cause nuclear proliferation. This is a strange argument, because it presupposes either that the terrorists have the capacity to gain control of "spent nuclear fuel" and to reprocess it, since the argument expects terrorists posses the ability to purify the plutonium found in "spent" reactor fuel. This narrative would require that the terrorist gain control over the reactor or at least some "spent" nuclear fuel, and are able to transport it away from the reactor. Opponents of nuclear power like Helen Caldicott tell us that spent nuclear fuel is "profoundly lethal radioactive waste," yet as dirty, toxic and dangerous spent nuclear fuel is by Caldicott's account, it apparently ceases to be a problem as soon as terrorist get a hold it. According to Caldicott all terrorist have to do is scoop up the spent fuel and make off with it in the trunk of a car and be off to a near by house with a garage, where the bomb making will take place.

According to Caldicott the processing of spent nuclear fuel is too hazardous, expensive and problematic to be undertaken by the nuclear industry, yet Caldicott seems to believe that the recovery of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel would be child's play for the would be nuclear terrorist. Apparently American scientists need to hire a few terrorists to show them how to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

In the real world, the challenge for the terrorists would face are formable. Plutonium is usually separated from other components of reactor fuel, by a complex chemical process in large industrial facilities. The extraction of enough plutonium to build an atomic bomb from "spent" reactor fuel would not be something you would want to undertake in a high school chemistry lab.

A plutonium bomb is made up of a small metal spear surrounded by a mantel of explosives. The explosives must be very energetic. The design of the explosive mantel must be precise and the assembly must be precise as well. The electrical triggers must go off at exactly the same time. With reactor grade Plutonium, arrangements must be made to keep the plutonium from overheating. There must be a means of preventing premature explosions of Pu240, and there must be a radiation shield that protects the bomb handler form radiation from the bomb. Oh the radiation can destroy electronic parts. The electronics need to be protected too. The device would turn out to not be so small. Nor would its assembly be a snap for your average group of nuclear physics and engineering graduate students. It would definitely help to have access to the facilities of Los Alamos National Lab.

I would not say that the project is impossible, but an anthrax bomb would create a great deal of harm, Anthrax is easier to get hold of, the bomb is far more portable, the terrorist far less likely to die before their project is accomplished. And it would be far easier to recruit terrorists who could actually pull off the project.

We also have to realize that once the raid on the nuclear power station is carried out, the terrorist conspiracy would be known, and the authorities will leave no stone unturned to catch them.

The raid on the power station would be no picnic for terrorists. Detailed descriptions of power plant security are not easy to come by, but reportedly security involves multiple levels of passive and active security features. The terrorists must have the ability to penetrate these layers of security, and carry out time consuming projects while preparing for what ever nefarious purpose they have in mind. In addition to breaching multiple layers of human and technical security, and a massive release of radioactive materials would require breaching both the heavy concrete containment dome of the reactor building, and the thick steel reactor containment vessel. Breaching the containment vessel would be a major challenge. The containment vessel is made of thick steel that could only be penetrated by a specially designed explosion. A 16" Naval gun would work well, but few terrorists’ posses that caliber weapon.

It would appear that there would be softer target for terrorists than nuclear power plants.

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