Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The nuclear proliferation through reactor fuel recycling canard

Alvin Weinberg once pointed out that nuclear
[p]roliferation has become a sort of ultimate Sword of Damocles that hangs over nuclear energy.
Nuclear non-proliferation is a poorly understood, but important factor in the future global energy picture, that taints the prospects for post carbon nuclear energy use, despite nuclear's cost and reliability advantages over renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Consideration of the nuclear post-carbon option is potentially important, because as Alvin Weinberg long ago pointed out,
a plausible case [exists] for two major theses:
1. That mankind must have an alternative, essentially inexhaustible energy source. From what we now know, this source must be nuclear.
2. That there probably are no insuperable global effects even if nuclear energy from fission breeders reaches 60 times the total energy man now produces.
Weinberg suggested
we would do well to contemplate the full implications of a complete commitment to nuclear energy.
The alternatives, as Weinberg saw them were "abundant energy" through nuclear power, and
force population control by tightening the Malthusian vise, by not holding out hope for this energy panacea
But do proliferation concerns really impose on us Weinberg's dilemma of "abundant energy" and nuclear proliferation or the "Malthusian vice"? really pose such a significant impediment
Perhaps the most significant mistake made by United States non-proliferation policy makers was the exclusion of India from the Nuclear club. This was part of an ultimately disastrous, pig-headed, anti-Indian cold war foreign policy, perused by the United States during the Cold War. India preferred to remain neutral in the United States, Russian conflict, and American foreign policy makers saw that Pakistan was willing to cut deals, so they chose an alliance with Pakistan over Indian good will. Pakistan in many respects was an undesirable Allie, which formed an second alliance with a then United States Enemy power, Communist China. Thus the United States had to look the other way while Pakistan and nuclear armed China, both of which had fought border wars with India, motivated by territorial greed. The Pakistan-China alliance, thus posed a significant threat to India, and that threat feed into Indian concerns which created an Indian motive for proliferation.

The 1971 Indo-Pakistan war was the trigger of both Pakistani and Indian nuclear proliferation programs. During the war, India succeeded in dismembering Pakistan, although much of the credit for the loss of the East Pakistani wind must go to the West Pakistani Muslim land owning elite, who in alliance with the West Pakistani dominated Pakistan Army sought to prevent the emergence a democratic state.

The Pakistan conflict with India has always been a diversion from the larger social and economic problems of the failed nation of Pakistan, and hides its weaknesses. The 1971 war demonstrated that in an all out military struggle with India, Pakistan could be destroyed. As a consequence the Pakistani Army chose nuclear weapons as their last line of defense. The 1974 Indian nuclear device test, was a response to the Pakistani nuclear weapons program and a warning to nuclear armed China to not assume a nuclear disarmed India in the event of another conflict between them. India had no reason to push the development of nuclear weapons until Pakistan began stockpiling theirs in the 1990's. Thus the nuclear arming of India can be seen as a response to the illicit activities of A.Q. Khan.

Academic theories of proliferation have focused far to much attention on supposed ties between civilian nuclear power program. These ties appear far more imaginary than real. India is the only nation which moved from an active civilian nuclear power program to a nuclear weapons program, but India is clearly a special case, and India's nuclear weapons program appears to be a response to the nuclear weapons program of Pakistan, a nation that did not have a prior civilian nuclear power program.

One would expect that research on proliferation prevention, would focus on the actual routes that nations have taken to develop nuclear weapons, with special attention being given to the paths chosen by nations which chose to defy the international effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. This is not the case, however. The Dean of academic proliferation researchers is Professor Frank N. von Hippel of Princeton University and former Assistant Director for National Security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. during the Clinton administration. Von Hippel whose theory rests on the assumption that nuclear weapons proliferation can be controlled by controlling the spread of fissile materials.

Here Von Hippel commits a seeming blunder, because he argues that the fissile materials present in "spent nuclear fuel" constitutes a proliferation danger. Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is far to dangerous because it leads to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, according to von Hippel. Von Hippel states that what makes nuclear fuel most dangerous
is the fact that reprocessing provides access to plutonium, a nuclear weapon material.
Since by now a far larger amount of Plutonium is tied up in once through unprocessed nuclear fuel, this would make managing the Spent Nuclear fuel supply an urgent task in the prevention of nuclear proliferation, but is it? Stephen Packard of Depleted Cranium appears to know something that Nuclear Proliferation expert Frank von Hippel doesn't, namely Why You Can’t Build a Bomb From Spent Fuel. I have on several occasions called attention to the work of nuclear disarmament expert Alexander DeVolpi, who challenged von Hippel's assumption that spent nuclear fuel is weaponizable. DeVolpi discussed the controversy at some length, and found significant flaws in von Hippel's arguments. Von Hippel, in no small measure based his case on a paper that that famed nuclear bomb designer J. Carson Marks had written on the explosive properties properties of reactor grade plutonium.
DeVolpi stated:
Mark wrote a paper, “Reactor-Grade Plutonium’s Explosive Properties,” a definitive description of the topic published in 1990 by the Nuclear Control Institute.[1] At the behest of the Department of Energy, a revised version, “Explosive Properties of Reactor-Grade Plutonium,” was published in a 1993 issue of Science and Global Security (Vol. 4, pp. 111-129), which includes an “Appendix: Probabilities of Different Yields” by Frank von Hippel and Edwin Lyman. [2]
It is instructive to compare the 1990 and 1993 papers which are essentially the same except for a curious, but important difference: Missing from the 1993 version is Mark’s carefully defined term “weapon” as “an object suitable for a stockpile by a military organization.” No explanation for this obvious and crucial omission is supplied with the published revision. My personal interviews and conversations with Mark before 1993 confirmed the intended significance of his 1990 definition.
While reprints of the 1993 paper designate J. Carson Mark as the sole author, the Princeton University website index for Science and Global Security credits the revised paper to “Mark, J.C., von Hippel, F.N., Lyman, E.” The revised version acknowledges that “This article is adapted from an earlier paper” (a reference back to Mark’s original 1990 article).
Von Hippel's whole case against nuclear reprocessing collapses, if reactor grade plutonium can not be used to construct a nuclear device that meet J. Carson Mark's definition of a "weapon."

DeVolpi makes the case that reactor grade plutonium is not weaponizable, and therefore von Hippel and his followers are barking up the wrong tree by trying reactor grade plutonium found in "nuclear waste" to proliferation issues.

If proliferation scholars like von Hippel focused their attention on real rather imaginary behavior, they would find strong support for DeVolpe's argument. No nation has ever undertaken the development of nuclear weapons that use reactor grade plutonium. Military grade plutonium is produced by two types of reactors, graphite reactors and heavy water reactors. India appears to have produced all of the plutonium used in their nuclear weapons in small, non-power producing reactors, despite the fact that they have much larger amounts of reactor grade plutonium available from their civilian power reactor program. Anyone who argues that reactor grade plutonium represents an acceptable material for weapons construction, must explain why India chose not to use it in its nuclear arms program.

There is something seriously wrong with intellectual endeavors related to human behavior that do not test theories by references to actual cases of behavior. Thus the reputation of von Hippel as a nuclear proliferation expert, rests on his conclusions drawn from never tested assumptions. When the von Hippel assumptions are tested by reference to actual cases of proliferation, they prove invalid. Thus to the extent that the current international proliferation prevention system is based on the work of von Hippel and like minded "non-proliferation experts," it cannot be assumed to have a valid, well researched theoretical basis.

The nuclear proliferation through reactor fuel recycling is thus a canard.


Soylent said...

I see non-proliferation as largely undesirable and in particular nuclear disarmament of any of the current nuclear powers as very dangerous(draw down of the number of weapons is fine as long as it still constitutes a deterrent).

The old farts who send young men to fight and die for them are even more exposed to the threat of nuclear retaliation than your average Joe. A war is a racket; it siphons wealth from the common man to the politically connected and gives politicians increased power and opportunity for rent-seeking. War distracts attention from problems at home.

If one focuses on the US situation, but it's by no means confined there, most wars are elective and serve no defensive purpose at all. Because people are aware of this they are much more likely to resist going to war when they legitimately need to.

Remember all the "vietnam syndrome" nonsense? If I'm merely engaging in hyperboli then why were politicians so worried, so consistently and for so long that they could not start a war of aggression on some non-threat on the other side of the globe?

Ironically I can think of few better ways to maximize proliferation than to follow Lovin's "soft" path.

donb said...

Charles Barton wrote:
Von Hippel whose theory rests on the assumption that nuclear weapons proliferation can be controlled by controlling the spread of fissile materials.

There are two obvious problems with with Von Hippel's theory:
1. Not all fissile materials are suitable for weapons. Some materials are too unstable for weapons, at best producing a fizzle rather than an explosion. Some produce high levels of radiation, making them hard to handle and destrutive of the chemical explosive triggers and controls needed to make a bomb go off.
2. If weapons proliferation is determined by the availability of fissile materials, then trying to control proliferation is bound to be a grand failure. Nature has spread fissile uranium into the ocean and over large swaths of the land. If the availability of fissile material leads to nuclear proliferation, then just about every nation on earth should have nuclear bombs.

The acquisition of nuclear weapons is a response to a threat, whether real or perceived. Once the decision is made to acquire nuclear weapons, the method of doing so rests in what is easiest, quickest and/or cheapest, and is still effective. Reactor grade plutonium is hard to work with and produces poor if any results. That is why there are no nuclear weapons made from it. It makes no sense that any should be made in the future.


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