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Fissile material from nuclear power tempting to terrorists, difficult to keep track of: “proliferation-proof” power cycle non-existent, says weapons expert

Posted by gmarkets on 3 September, 2007

According to Brian Toohey, Princeton physicist and former US arms control official Harold Feiveson calculated that relying on nuclear power in future decades to cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 25 per cent could potentially produce enough fissile material to build as many as 625,000 nuclear weapons a year, reported The Australian Financial Review (1/9/2007, p. 62). Terrorist could choose targets: Only a minute proportion of this material would need to be diverted to create a serious danger, Toohey said. Unfortunately, it took as little as five kilograms of plutonium to make a nuclear weapon. There was about 250,000 kilograms of plutonium stored at civilian facilities and more at military installations. Spent reactor fuel was often described as “self-protecting” because it was so highly radioactive that it required special reprocessing facilities to separate out the plutonium. Terrorists would find it easier, however, to obtain plutonium from a reactor fuel containing mixed oxides of uranium and plutonium (or MOX).

Australia doesn’t want uranium back: [US President George] Bush had also proposed a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) intended to reduce access to nuclear materials by having most countries return spent reactor fuel to a handful of safe suppliers. The Howard government said it would not take back spent fuel from Australian Uranium exports. On present indications, a comprehensive GNEP scheme would not exist in the foreseeable future, said Toohey.

Plutonium production difficult to estimate: But technological solutions to the problem of proliferation may be unachievable, according to Toohey. A leading scientist from the Lawrence Livermore weapons laboratory in the US, Bruce Goodwin, said in 2000: “The opinions of weapons design experts lead to the conclusion that there is ‘no proliferation-proof’ nuclear power cycle.” It was extremely difficult to estimate precisely how much plutonium is produced in the nuclear fuel cycle. It took eight months before a leak of radioactive waste containing 160 kilograms of plutonium was detected in April 2005 at the UK’s Sellafield plant.

Better safe than sorry: Prudence suggested caution was needed before encouraging dozens of new countries to develop nuclear power. Without being alarmist, the scale of the potental danger meant it was one of the those situations where it was better to be safe than sorry.

The Australian Financial Review, 1/9/2007, p. 62

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