Proliferation Concerns

The same enrichment technologies used to increase the amount of uranium 235 from 0.7% to 3-5% may also be used to increase the enrichment of uranium 235 to that needed for a nuclear weapon. Because of this, there is great concern an increase in the use of nuclear energy will lead to the spread of nuclear weapons. A classic example currently in the news is that of Iran.

Iran is currently completing the construction of a Russian designed commercial light water reactor. Although fuel for this reactor will initially be provided by Russia, Iran is also building a uranium enrichment facility. Some believe that this facility is not intended for commercial application, but instead is intended for the production of highly enriched, weapons grade uranium. Iran has repeatedly denied this, asserting that the project is intended to provide a secure source of fuel for its civilian nuclear power program. Despite repeated requests for a complete and thorough disclosure of its plans, some believe that Iran has not fulfilled its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is a signatory. Its actions have prompted suspicion about Iran's motivations and led to sanctions being imposed by the United Nations.

The danger here is not the construction of the reactor or its operation. The fear of proliferation from commercial nuclear reactors is based on the assumption that fuel for a commercial nuclear reactor can be used in a nuclear weapon. It cannot. The concentration of uranium 235 atoms in commercial fuel is around 3-5% and this concentration is simply too small to create a nuclear weapon; the concentration of uranium 235 atoms must be increased to levels in excess of 20%. It is true that several countries used the cover of civilian nuclear programs to hide clandestine activities designed to produce weapons grade uranium and plutonium. The existence of the civilian program did not in and of itself lead to proliferation. There are other countries that do not have civilian nuclear power, but are widely acknowledged to possess nuclear weapons.

It is the spread of enrichment technology and the construction of such facilities in countries that may divert the enriched uranium from peaceful uses to weapons. It is the intent, not the construction and operation of commercial nuclear reactors that is the problem. Such a situation is thought to exist in Iran. Efforts are underway by the United Nations, Russia, the United States and other countries to develop a fuel bank to ensure the supply of fuel for any country, eliminating the need for countries to develop their own nuclear enrichment capability.

If other countries were to follow Iran's example and develop their own enrichment capabilities, there is concern that this will eventually lead to large scale proliferation of at least the material for the production of weapons suitable uranium if not the weapons themselves.

Others have also expressed the concern that the plutonium which results from the absorption of a neutron by 238 uranium in the fuel of a commercial reactor could also be used to construct a weapon. The plutonium that is produced in a commercial reactor can be used for a weapon, but it is far less suitable and also very difficult to extract from the fuel due to the tremendous amount of radiation emitted from irradiated reactor fuel. To obtain plutonium from a reactor that is suitable for weapons requires fairly short times in the reactor, something difficult to achieve in most commercial reactors. Those countries that did produce plutonium for a weapon did so using research reactors or specifically designed production reactors.

To obtain commercial nuclear technology, a country must submit to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. While this does not prevent a country from having a clandestine program, it makes it difficult to do so using commercial reactors. Since it is the enrichment process that is of concern, the fear of proliferation from commercial reactors alone is not well founded.

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