Thursday, August 28, 2008

A probabilistic approach to nuclear proliferation

In recent years nuclear proliferation researchers have increasingly used a probabilistic approach to nuclear proliferation. The current model still contains significant flaws, that do ignore established patterns of behavior and motive in real world examples of nuclear proliferation. Rather than consider the motives and choices of real and possible proliferators, conceptual accounts of proliferation simply assume the choices that would be proliferators will make.

Take for example the choice to use plutonium derived from "spent light water reactor fuel" in nuclear weapons. There is abundant evidence that reactor grade plutonium is not regarded by weapons makers as ideal or even good weapons material. No weapon has ever been built that uses reactor grade plutonium. There is evidence that a would be proliferator, South Africa, chose to develop a uranium enrichment technology rather than simply weaponize its reactor grade plutonium resources. In fact no would be proliferator to date has used plutonium derived from light water reactor as sources of bomb material.

Any realistic assessment of of proliferation risks must take into account the actual history of proliferation behavior. That history would suggest that wold be proliferators prefer high grade uranium (U-235) and plutonium (Pu-239) to power reactor produced fissionable materials. Proliferators see obtaining Pu-239 or U-235 as a requirement for bomb making, and have demonstrated in numerous instances a willingness to build nuclear weapons using locally produced technologies that we either designed locally or were based on technologies designed elsewhere. Thus Pakistan, North Korea, and Iraq used technologies designed elsewhere but produced locally. Iran attempted the same approach, but lacked the technical and industrial capacity to build gas centrifuges needed to produce weapons grade U-235. South Africa demonstrated that enrichment technology could be developed locally. Thus would be proliferators seem to prefer weapons grade fissionable materials, and already have a number of attractive and proven options for developing weapons grade materials. Thus in order to demonstrate that an added proliferation risk exists implementing new nuclear technology, researchers must examine the likely hood that the new technology would actually influence a would be proliferators choice to build nuclear weapons.

A second issue for the proliferation probabilistic model would be the likelihood of success.

At the present point would be nuclear proliferators already have a number of attractive options to choose from, and thus construction of power reactors using existing or new reactor technology may not add appreciably to the probabilistic approach would be the likelihood of success. Would be proliferators run considerable risks in developing proliferation technology. We have seen for example that North Korea's proliferation program may have lead to a nuclear device test that produced unsatisfactory results. Iran's initial proliferation program failed because it was not capable of producing advanced centrifuges. Thus if a would be proliferator chooses a proliferation resistant technology, the choice may well increase the likelihood that the proliferation project will fail. A greater potential for failure impact a proliferation project in two ways. First by making it less likely that project goals are meet. And secondly making the proliferator less likely to choose the option in the first place. Both decreased likelihood of that a difficult options will result in successful proliferation. We have seem in the case of North Korea and Iran that even when using fissionable materials production technology developed in Europe, a proliferation effort may fail. Both North Korea and Iran appear to have given up, at least for the present, on their proliferation efforts following their program failures.

A third factor effecting proliferation choice of a technology is cost. The relative cost of a civilian power reactor may increase the cost of proliferation considerably. In addition to reactor cost, fuel reprocessing facilities also cost several billion dollars. Thus even if civilian power reactors were practical as proliferation tools the cost of of the reactor and a fuel reprocessing plant, would make it unlikely that the reactor would be the proliferation tool of choice.

It is also to build proliferation resistant features into a reactor. Proliferation resistant features do not have to be 100% effective, in order to make serve as effective blocks to proliferation. By increasing the possibility of proliferation failure the proliferation resistant feature both increases cost and increases the likelihood of project failure. Given these factors, the would be proliferator is likely to look for more attractive proliferation options.

It has already been noted that in the real world, civilian single use power reactors have never been used to produce fissionable materials for weapons or as proliferation tools. Their cost makes it lest likely that a would be proliferator would choose to use them for proliferation purposes. Even in the case of the duel purpose Magnox type reactor, the diminished purity of its Pu-239 made its fuel grade plutonium a unsatisfactory source of fissionable material for weapons. The attempt by the North Koreans to use nuclear weapons Magnox type reactors ended shortly after its only test of a nuclear device using locally produced plutonium. It is possible that the test failed, and at any rate, North Korea renewed nuclear disarmament talks shortly after the test.

Finally it is possible to further diminish both the attractiveness of nuclear material from civilian power reactors, by increasing cost incurred by would be proliferators, and increasing proliferation difficulties and thus the likelihood of failure. Such approaches ought to be part of proliferation research. But as it is, there is no real world evidence that any civilian reactor technology increases the likelihood that would be proliferators, including rogue states and terrorists, are more likely to obtain nuclear weapons.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

We are now deeply into the heart of the political season. I am amazed at what a strange and confusing art politics is. There is style and presentation, spin and lobbying, attack and counterattack, reasons within reasons, all to gain an advantage in perception. Truth and fact have nothing to do with good politics. Patient explanation and reasoned logic are never effective; it’s the short catch phrase and the appeal to emotion that almost always works.

As a consequence of their training, the engineer or scientist is singularly at a profound disadvantage in a political contest. Like the good man Eliezer confused by the unnatural and wicked customs of Sodom and Gomorrah, a mind trained in logic and reason is lost by the absurdity and deviousness of the political environment.

At the core of the political art are two powerful emotions, fear and hate; in fact, politics has been called organized hate. A common tool of many political leaders is to appeal to these elemental emotions to control and direct the population in the exercise of their political power.

Nuclear proliferation is the quenticental political issue. The opponents of nuclear power use this issue as an effective tool to mire deployment of nuclear power in a storm of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Scientists and engineers, the usual proponents of nuclear power, use an argument rooted in logic, reason, and science that is well beyond the knowledge or interest of the common man.

Furthermore, any slight flaws in the nuclear systems that these proponents concede to are exaggerated to the point of absurdity.

The nuclear proponents scratch their heads in perplexity and wonder what is going on. They have no clue to what is happening in the dark and convoluted recesses within the mind of the common man.

To overcome this political tactic, the designers and builders of these nuclear systems must overdesign these systems to eliminate even the slightest safety and proliferation resistance weaknesses that can be used as a political wedge in the propaganda war for the minds and hearts of the general public; even if this overdesign is illogical; and even at the expense of efficiency and cost. Any possibility of the slightest mistake or mishap in a nuclear system must be rendered impossible. It all must be done above board with absolute honesty. Yes, nuclear proponents must be saints to even have a seat at the political table.


To the degree that these nuclear proponents resist this tactic as crazy and inane; to rely on probability and not absolute certainty, the world wide expansion and deployment of nuclear power is at risk. The appeal and power of the politics of fear are so very strong and pervasive. It will take shrewdness, fortitude, and perseverance to overcome it.

Charles Barton said...

Anon while I appreciate what you say, the goal of this blog is to focus on the rational, rather than the emotional as far as energy issues are concern. Far to much is at stake for these issues to be determined by passion. At the very least I try to makle the case for a rational approach, and call to task thinking errors that rest on appeals to emotions. Of course it is possible for a politician to work things out rationally but to use appeals to emotions in order to increase support for rational policies. Politicians who relie on emotion to support poorly reasoned policies, may be sucessful in the short run, but eventually the electorate is forced to confront the consequences of irrational policies.

DV8 2XL said...

"To the degree that these nuclear proponents resist this tactic as crazy and inane; to rely on probability and not absolute certainty, the world wide expansion and deployment of nuclear power is at risk."

Wake up and smell the coffee people; the nuclear renaissance will happen with or without the blessing of the U.S.A., and with or without its participation.

The market for new reactors is starting to look like the one for civil aircraft; utterly cutthroat, and issues of proliferation resistance is a low priority for Russian, French Japanese and even Canadian builders. AECL would, and has jumped at the chance at selling their large open pool reactors, and those CAN be used for breeding for example.

The U.S. no longer controls this technology, no longer has the best offerings, and doesn't control the uranium market; the rest of the World couldn't care less what your artificial concerns are in this matter. While this might be an issue in your upcoming election, do not think for a second that it bother anyone else.

donb said...

Proliferation is a red herring. As stated in the original posting, there are easier ways of making a nuclear bomb than trying to use materials from civilian power reactors.

The bigger issue may the dirty bomb. The candidate sources for the dirty material are more broad. Though spent oxide fuel is not optimum for the purpose, the fear factor will still be high.

Concerning proliferation, safety, politics, and rational thought, I find that nothing clears the mind of irrational opposition to nuclear energy better than freezing in the dark because conventional energy is unaffordable.

DV8 2XL said...

Dirty bombs simply don't work. Radiological weapons were field-trialed by the British in the 1950's and failed so miserably that no further work was deemed necessary. I suspect that groups thinking to deploy one have done their homework and come to the same conclusion; it's just not worth the effort and risk.

These things are not a threat.

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