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Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

Preventing terrorists from building a nuclear weapon depends on restricting access to sensitive nuclear materials.

Terrorists could build a nuclear weapon—but they need the materials

Building nuclear weapons requires either highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. Neither is found in nature, and both are difficult to produce.

To build a nuclear weapon, terrorists would likely need to steal HEU or plutonium. A ban on “reprocessing” (required to produce plutonium) and phasing out the use of HEU for civil purposes would decrease the availability of those materials—and help prevent a nuclear terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

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Reprocessing nuclear fuel increases the risk of nuclear terrorism

Most nuclear power plants—including all the reactors in the United States—use low-enriched uranium (LEU) as a fuel source. LEU and its waste products are not directly usable in nuclear weapons.

Nuclear waste can however be reprocessed and reused. This involves separating out plutonium and turning it into a form of nuclear fuel that’s reusable in nuclear reactors.

While reprocessing nuclear waste to make new fuel sounds attractive—and is done in Japan, Britain, France, Russia, and elsewhere—the plutonium it produces is usable in nuclear weapons and vulnerable to theft, especially during transportation.

To help prevent nuclear terrorism, the United States should continue its ban on domestic reprocessing, and advocate against it abroad.

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Get rid of military plutonium? Yes. Use as a fuel? No.

While the United States doesn’t reprocess nuclear waste from its nuclear power plants, it does have plans to use excess weapons-grade plutonium to produce new mixed-oxide ("MOX") fuel for power reactors.

Though dismantling nuclear weapons is a major security priority, turning plutonium into MOX fuel creates new security issues. The plutonium in MOX fuel is vulnerable to theft and usable in nuclear weapons.

Instead of turning nuclear weapons into fuel—which is unnecessary and creates new risks—the United States should cancel its MOX program and directly dispose of excess plutonium. For example, excess plutonium could be mixed with other nuclear waste and “immobilized” for long-term disposal.

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Images (bottom): Flickr, Savannah River Site
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