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Reprocessing and Nuclear Terrorism


U.S. civilian nuclear power plants use only low-enriched uranium (LEU) as fuel. LEU cannot be used directly to make nuclear weapons. As the fuel is burned up in the reactor, plutonium and radioactive fission products are produced. The plutonium and remaining uranium can be separated from the other materials in spent nuclear fuel by a series of chemical operations known as "reprocessing." The purified plutonium that is obtained from reprocessing can be reused as fuel, but states or terrorist groups can also use it to make nuclear weapons.

Over three decades ago, the United States decided on nuclear non-proliferation grounds not to reprocess the spent fuel generated by civilian nuclear power plants, but instead to directly dispose of it in a geologic repository. However, the United States does not yet have a geologic repository and policymakers periodically propose that the United States begin to reprocess its spent fuel. Reprocessing existing U.S. spent fuel would produce hundreds of tons of separated plutonium that would be vulnerable to diversion or theft by terrorists.

Reprocessing would increase the risk of nuclear terrorism

From the perspective of terrorists seeking a nuclear weapon, reprocessing changes plutonium from a form in which it is highly radioactive and nearly impossible to steal to one in which it is not radioactive and could be stolen surreptitiously by an insider, or taken by force during its routine transportation.

This situation is made worse by the fact that the theft of enough plutonium to build several nuclear weapons could remain undetected for many years at a reprocessing facility. In particular, at commercial scale "bulk-handling" reprocessing facilities and fuel fabrication plants, which annually handle from several tons to many tens of tons of separated plutonium in solution or powder form, it is essentially impossible to account for the plutonium throughput to within tens or even hundreds of kilograms in a timely manner, making it feasible that the theft of this quantity of plutonium could go undetected for many years. Since a relatively simple implosion nuclear weapon can be made with roughly six kilograms of plutonium, the uncertainty in the annual amount of plutonium processed is quite significant, and could lead to undetected acquisition of weapon-usable materials by states or terrorists.

This is not just a theoretical problem: two striking examples have occurred in Japan. In 1994, it was revealed that over five years of operation, the total amount of plutonium unaccounted for at the Plutonium Fuel Production Facility in Tokai-mura had grown to seventy kilograms—enough for some 11 nuclear weapons. Ultimately, in 1996 it was determined that most of the missing material was in dust that accumulated on the equipment inside the facility. Had the material instead been stolen, the theft would have remained undetected for years—more than enough time for terrorists to convert the material into crude nuclear weapons.

Similar problems occurred at the reprocessing plant in Tokai-mura, which started operation in 1977. Japanese officials acknowledged in January 2003 that it took a 15-year investigation to account for a more than 200-kilogram shortfall in plutonium at the reprocessing plant. This amount constitutes about three percent of the total amount of plutonium separated by the plant during 25 years of operation, and is enough for some thirty nuclear weapons.

In contrast, in a "once-through" nuclear fuel cycle, the spent fuel is left intact and simply stored once it is removed from the reactor, for ultimate disposal in a repository. In this case the plutonium remains imbedded in the highly radioactive spent fuel, which is thus "self-protected" from theft. Since anyone within a meter of spent fuel that was less than 50 years old would receive a deadly dose in less than 30 minutes, even terrorists willing to die for their cause would not have enough time to do anything useful.

Of course, the size and weight of the spent fuel assemblies (typically 10 feet long, and fifteen hundred pounds) also makes them difficult to steal. Moreover, it is straightforward to account for the number of fuel assemblies.

In sum, a closed nuclear fuel cycle entails the handling and transportation of large amounts of nuclear bomb-making material. As discussed above, during much of this process, the material cannot be accounted for precisely enough to ensure that an amount adequate for one or more nuclear weapons has not been stolen. This situation presents numerous opportunities for terrorists to acquire the material they need to build a nuclear weapon.

We will be much safer if plutonium remains within the highly radioactive spent fuel that is eventually sealed in a secure geologic repository than if plutonium is extracted from spent fuel, fabricated into fresh fuel, and shipped to nuclear reactors around the country, where it would be vulnerable to diversion or theft at every stage.

Reprocessing would increase the risk of nuclear proliferation

U.S. reprocessing would encourage other countries to do likewise and undermine the U.S. goal of halting the spread of proliferation-prone fuel cycle technologies, which is why U.S. policy has been to not engage in reprocessing.

Some reprocessing advocates claim that a new generation of so-called "proliferation-resistant" reprocessing technologies now under development would resolve the proliferation concerns of conventional reprocessing. However, these technologies would actually be more difficult for international inspectors to safeguard because it would be harder to make precise measurements of the weapon-usable materials during and after processing. Moreover, all reprocessing technologies are far more proliferation-prone than direct disposal, and require much greater resources to be safeguarded against diversion and theft of plutonium.

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