Tag Archives: nuclear non-proliferation

Worse than the Dirty Bomb? Mobile Nuclear Military Reactors

In January 2019, the Defense Department issued a call for information in support of the aptly titled Project Dilithium. It seeks to develop a tiny, readily transportable, yet virtually indestructible nuclear power reactor for use at forward operating bases, the military facilities that provide logistical and troop support to the front-lines of conflict zones.

To be sure, the type of reactor it is seeking could be a great military asset: all the benefits of nuclear energy with none of the risks. The costly and dangerous process of trucking diesel fuel to bases, sometimes through hostile territory, may eventually be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the need to store and ship irradiated nuclear fuel in a war zone will introduce different problems. And the odds that a meltdown-proof reactor could be successfully developed any time soon are vanishingly small.

The Defense Department…is seeking a nuclear reactor capable of producing 1 to 10 megawatts of electricity. …The reactor, at a minimum, should be less than 40 tons total weight; small enough to be transported by truck, ship, and aircraft; able to run for at least three years without refueling; and capable of semi-autonomous operation… The reactor should have an “inherently safe design” that ensures “a meltdown is physically impossible in various complete failure scenarios;” cause “no net increase in risk to public safety … by contamination with breach of primary core;” and have “minimized consequences to nearby personnel in case of adversary attack.

 An Octrober 2018 report commissioned by the army’s Deputy Chief of Staff admits, quite reasonably, that exposed mobile nuclear plants would “not be expected to survive a direct kinetic attack.” If commanders need to expend significant resources to protect the reactors or their support systems from military strikes, such reactors could become burdens rather than assets.  Can one really invent a reactor robust enough to suffer such a strike without causing unacceptable consequences? …If a severe accident or sabotage attack were to induce more extreme conditions than the reactor was designed to withstand, all bets are off. How long would passive airflow keep nuclear fuel safely cool if, say, an adversary threw an insulating blanket over a small reactor? Or if the reactor were buried under a pile of debris?

Moreover, it is hard to imagine that a direct explosive breach of the reactor core would not result in dispersal of some radioactive contamination. An operating nuclear reactor is essentially a can filled with concentrated radioactive material, including some highly volatile radionuclides, under conditions of high pressure and/or temperature. Even a reactor as small as 1 megawatt-electric would contain a large quantity of highly radioactive, long-lived isotopes such as cesium-137—a potential dirty bomb far bigger than the medical radiation sources that have caused much concern among security experts. 

At best a release of radioactivity would be a costly disruption, and at worst it would cause immediate harm to personnel, render the base unusable for years, and alienate the host country. For any reactor and fuel design, extensive experimental and analytical work would be needed to understand how much radioactivity could actually escape after an attack and how far it would disperse. This is also true for spent fuel being stored or transported.

The 2018 report describes several existing reactor concepts that it thinks might meet its needs. One is the 2 megawatt-electric “Megapower” reactor being designed by Los Alamos National Laboratory. But a 2017 INL study of the design iden­­tified several major safety concerns, including vulnerabilities to seismic and flooding events. The study also found that the reactor lacked sufficient barriers to prevent fission product release in an accident. INL quickly developed two variants of the original Los Alamos design, but a subsequent review found that those shared many of the safety flaws of the original and introduced some new ones.

Building Mobile Nuclear Reactor LANL

The other designs are high-temperature gas-cooled reactors that use TRISO (“tristructural isotropic”) fuel, which was originally developed decades ago for use in reactors such as the now-decommissioned Fort St. Vrain plant in Colorado. TRISO fuel consists of small particles of uranium coated with layers of different materials designed to retain most fission products at temperatures up to 1,600 degrees Celsius.

TRISO fuel enthusiasts have long claimed that reactors utilizing it do not need containments because each particle essentially has its own. This would seem to make TRISO an ideal fuel for small, mobile reactors, which can’t be equipped with the large, leak-tight containment structures typical of commercial power reactors. The army report buys into the notion that these “encapsulated” nuclear fuels can “avoid the release of radioactive volatile elements” and prevent contamination of the surrounding area, either during normal operations or accidents.

TRISO fuel contained in pebble

TRISO fuel’s actual performance has been inconsistent, however, and much is still not known. The Energy Department has been carrying out a program for more than a decade to try to improve TRISO fuel, but final results are not expected for years. In addition, if the fuel temperature rises above 1,600 degrees Celsius, fission product release can rapidly increase, making it vulnerable to incendiary weapons that burn hotter, such as thermite. The Defense Department may have already realized that TRISO fuel is not as miraculous as it first thought.

The RFI also specifies that the reactor should be capable of being transported within seven days after shutdown, presumably with the irradiated nuclear fuel still inside. While this requirement is understandable—if forces need to retreat in a hurry, they would not want to leave the reactor behind—it is unrealistic to expect this could be met while ensuring safety. Typically, spent nuclear fuel is stored for many months to years after discharge from a reactor before regulators allow it to be shipped, to allow for both thermal cooling and decay of short-lived, intensely radioactive fission products. Moving a reactor and its irradiated fuel so soon after shutdown could be a risky business.

Finally, the proliferation risks of these reactors and their fuel is a concern. The original RFI stipulated that the reactor fuel had to be high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), which is uranium enriched to levels above the 5 percent uranium-235 concentration of conventional power reactors, but still below the 20 percent that marks the lower limit for highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is usable in nuclear weapons….If the Defense Department goes forward with Project Dilithium, other nations, including US adversaries, may be prompted to start producing HALEU and building their own military power reactors.

Excerptsf rom Edwin Lyman The Pentagon wants to boldly go where no nuclear reactor has gone before. It won’t work, Feb. 22, 2019

The Nine and their Nuclear Weapons

Nine nationst control the roughly 14,200 nuclear weapons in the world… But What makes a good nuclear arsenal?  First, a good nuclear doctrine. Will a country strike first, or only in response?  Second, safety. Are the nukes secure? Does the country participate in nonproliferation treaties?
Third, do the nukes work as intended? Is the arsenal sufficient? Can the nukes survive an initial attack?…Business Insider has weighed these questions with the help of Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, to rank the world’s nuclear arsenals.

9. North Korea: North Korea fails by virtually every metric used to measure nuclear arsenals… Because Pyongyang can never hope to defeat any of its enemies in conventional fighting, it turned to nukes as a guarantor of its security.  Weapons count: estimated 60. North Korea has a number of short- to intercontinental-range ballistic-missile systems thought to operate off the backs of mobile missile launchers.  One analyst has warned that North Korea’s mobile launchers may simply distract from the real threat of hidden nuclear silos, but no evidence of such silos has ever appeared in US intelligence reports made public.  It’s completely unknown if North Korea keeps its nuclear weapons mated or with the warhead affixed to the missile.

8. Pakistan: Pakistan built nuclear weapons in response to its bitter regional rival, India, testing and proceeding with a relatively simple nuclear mission: deter or defeat India….Pakistan has links to Islamic extremists with connections to global terror networks. Experts have long feared not enough has been done to secure Islamabad’s nukes against these threats.  Additionally, “Pakistan has lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use,” by building smaller, tactical nuclear weaponsWeapons count: 150.  Pakistan has ballistic missiles with ranges just long enough to hit anywhere in the country of India….The US has specifically given Pakistan permission to modify its F-16 fighters to drop nuclear weapons…Pakistan is thought to keep its nuclear warheads separate from its missiles and delivery systems.

7. India: “India is still a nuclear posture that’s still in vivid development,” Just as Pakistan fears India’s greater strength and numbers, India has come to fear China’s growing and modernizing conventional forces.  But unlike Pakistan, India has sworn off nuclear first strikes and not looked into tactical nuclear weapons. ..But India’s submarine fleet remains a dream at the moment, lowering its overall score.  Weapons count: 140 (stored)  India recently launched its first nuclear-powered submarine..As it stands, the missiles and submarine India has picked out for its underwater nuclear deterrent can’t range China’s vital points or most of Pakistan.

6. Russia: “Russia seems to sort of be driven by a frantic exploitation of different options,”   Weapons count: 6,850 (1,600 deployed; 2,750 stored; 2,500 retired).  Russia has the full nuclear triad with constantly modernized bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines. The triad is a true 24/7/365 force with submarines on deterrence patrols at all times.  Additionally, Russia has a high number of tactical nuclear weapons with shorter-range and smaller-explosive yield…Russia’s Poseidon underwater 100 to 200 megaton nuclear torpedo is the biggest nuclear explosive device ever built…The weapon would essentially set off tidal waves so large and an explosion so radioactive and punishing that continents, not countries, would pay the price for decades.  The US has not found it useful to respond to these doomsday-type devices.  Russia stores its nuclear warheads mated to missiles and ready to fire. Additionally, it has surrounded Moscow with 68 nuclear-tipped missile interceptors meant to protect the city from a US strike.

5. Israel:   “Israel is interesting because it’s a semi-dormant nuclear program, but it’s not dormant,” …Israel’s conventional military, with its top-of-the-line air force and close coordination with the US, easily overpowers its regional foes in traditional fighting.  Instead of reaching for nuclear weapons to threaten a more powerful foe, Israel has a “very relaxed nuclear posture, truly what you could call a last resort posture,”  Weapons count: estimated 80..Truly, nobody knows what weapons Israel has or doesn’t have, and that’s the way they like it.

4. UK:   Weapons count: 215 (120 deployed; 95 stored)  During the Cold War, the UK labored to create its own nuclear weapons and delivery systems, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the UK has withdrawn from that posture and essentially become a client of the US.  The UK operates four nuclear submarines that fire can fire 16 Trident missiles made by the US. That’s it. The UK won’t get an “arsenal” page for this reason. The warheads on these patrols are mated to missiles.

3. France:  France has a long history with nuclear weapons, like the UK, but has maintained more independence and control over its stockpile and doctrine.  Weapons count: 300 (290 deployed; 10 stored)..France has four nuclear-powered submarines, one of which stays on a constant deterrence patrol ready to fire mated nuclear missiles.  While it’s not a nuclear weapon outright, outside of the US, only France operates a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.

2. US: Weapons count: 6,450 (1,750 deployed; 2,050 stored; 2,650 retiredd)Today the US’s nuclear arsenal has narrowed down to a triad in constant stages of modernization.  The US operates two nuclear-capable bombers, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the B-52 Stratofortress, originally built in the 1950s and slated to fly for 100 years.  The US operates a fleet of nuclear submarines, which it keeps on constant deterrence patrols.  The US also has nearly 400 intercontinental-range missiles in silos around the country, mostly aimed at Russia’s nuclear weapons for an imagined “mutual destruction” scenario.  Recently, the US has come under intense criticism for President Donald Trump’s proposal to build more smaller or tactical nuclear weapons. Experts say these weapons make nuclear war more likely.  The US has tactical nuclear weapons stored around Europe and Turkey, which, like the bigger strategic weapons, are stored mated.


1. China:   China has just 280 nuclear warheads, and none of them are mated to delivery systems. China flies bombers and sails submarines that it calls nuclear-capable, but none of them have ever actually flown with nuclear weapons.  China’s nuclear doctrine forbids first strikes and centers around the idea that China would survive a nuclear strike, dig its bombs out of deep underground storage, and send a salvo of missiles back in days, months, or years.  This essentially nails the idea of “credible minimum deterrence.” Everyone knows China has nuclear weapons, that they work, and nobody doubts China would use them if it first received a nuclear attack.  China has nuclear-capable submarines and bombers, but they do not ever travel with nuclear weapons on board.  China relies on a growing and modernizing conventional military to assert its will on other countries and virtually never mentions its nuclear arsenal.

Excerpts from Alex Lockie,  We ranked the world’s nuclear arsenals — here’s why China’s came out on top, Business Insider, Jan. 25, 2019

Lasers for Nuclear Weapons

 Using spinning gas centrifuges to enrich fuel for nuclear bombs requires a structure the size of a department store, and enough electricity for some 10,000 homes. An alternative method being developed would make the search far more difficult...The alternative is to zap the uranium vapour with a powerful infra-red beam from a laser…At least 27 countries, by one tally, have worked on laser enrichment since the 1970s. Most gave up, largely because production batches were tiny. Now, however, two firms say that they have learned how to scale up the process.

Jeffrey Eerkens of Neutrek, a Californian research firm, says its laser process requires around half the space and electricity that centrifuges need. A competing laser method is offered by Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a consortium of General Electric, Hitachi and Cameco, a Canadian uranium producer. It, too, requires less space. In 2012 GLE was awarded a licence to build a facility in North Carolina for the commercial production of reactor fuel.

America has classified the technology, but that may not stop it spreading. The most important bit of laser-enrichment know-how has already leaked, says Charles Ferguson, head of the Federation of American Scientists—namely, that companies now consider it to be practical. This will reinvigorate efforts by other countries to develop the technology for themselves….

Non-proliferation optimists think laser-enrichment might not work as well as advertised, because GLE has still not begun commercial production. But this may be only temporary, because the company says the price of enriched uranium is too low to justify completing the project. A regime keen for a more discreet path to the bomb would not bother with such considerations.

Monitoring nuclear weapons: Lasering the fuel, Economist Technology Quarterly,  Sept. 5, 2015

Secrecy at the International Atomic Energy Agency

The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], which is charged with both promoting the peaceful use of nuclear power and controlling fuel that could be used in weapons, is holding its quadrennial safeguards meeting behind closed doors for the first time in at least 12 years this week in Vienna. The agency also decided to withdraw information about nuclear projects that have led to proliferation risks.

The IAEA restricted access to the symposium [Linking, Implementation, Safety, Nuclear, Safeguards, Atomic Energy, Technology, Science, Energy, Chemistry, Physics] held between October 20 and October 24, 2014, so participants aren’t “inhibited,” spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in an e-mail while noting that the opening and closing ceremonies will be public. Information about technical cooperation, which has been progressively restricted since 2012, will be made available again in the “coming weeks,” IAEA public-information director Serge Gas said in an e-mail….

To be sure, some IAEA members such as Iran would like to see the agency impose even greater controls over information. President Hassan Rouhani’s government asked the IAEA in a Sept. 19 open letter to investigate leaks of confidential data that it said could violate the interim agreement it signed with world powers last year.

Iran’s stance shows the agency is guilty of a double failure, according to Tariq Rauf, a former IAEA official who is now a director at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. While the public is increasingly excluded from the scientific debate that shapes policy decisions, “the agency routinely allows secret information about nuclear programs to be given to select Western countries, which then leak it out,” he said.… The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a 2011 report it’s wary about IAEA help to Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.  Past IAEA technical assistance probably wound up helping Pakistan discover and mine the uranium that went into its nuclear weapons. In Syria, the agency developed a uranium-ore production facility that later drew scrutiny after the Middle East country allegedly built a secret reactor…

Scientists at this week’s meeting will explain how they can use rooftop sensors to sniff out the gases given off during plutonium production, according to the meeting agenda. Others will look at new ways to analyze satellite imagery, more sensitive methods for measuring traces of radioactivity and the difficulties in keeping track of nuclear material at places like Japan’s $20 billion plutonium-separation facility in Rokkasho. 

Excerpts from Jonathan Tirone. Nuclear Secrecy Feeds Concerns of Rogues Getting Weapons, Bloomberg, Oct 22, 2014n

Iran Nuclear Talks: the Khamenei Card

On July 7, 1014 as critical nuclear negotiations got underway in Vienna between Iran, the United States, Europe, Russia and China, Khamenei (Iranian Supreme Leader) started talking hard numbers.  The Supreme Leader’s remarks were unprecedented both because they represented a blatant intervention from his perch in Tehran in the super-sensitive talks in Vienna, and because they relayed confidential technical details that had not been aired publicly before by Iranian officials.

The moment could not be more critical. An agreement is supposed to be reached before July 20, 2014 that will rein in the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and end or curtail the Western sanctions that have put so much pressure on Tehran. Failure to reach an accord will add yet more potentially apocalyptic uncertainties to the Middle Eastern scene…

The Supreme Leader started talking about SWUs, which it is fair to say few Iranians, or for that matter Americans, Europeans, Russians or Chinese ever have heard of.  In this context the acronym stands for “separative work units,” which relates directly to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium to levels that might feed into nuclear weapons. SWU defines the capability derived from the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges and their efficiency. For example one thousand AR1 centrifuges with the efficiency of 0.9 translates into 900 SWU, whereas 225 AR2 centrifuges with an efficiency of 4 translates into 900 SW…

“They want us to be content with 10,000 SWUs,” he said. That is, he estimates the bottom line the West will accept. “But they have started from 500 and 1000 SWUs,” he added. “Our people say that we need 190,000 SWUs,” he went on. That’s a big spread to try to close.  Khamenei then raised the problem of American and European objections to the more-or-less bomb-proof underground facility Iran has built at Fordo, where much of its enrichment goes on. “They emphasize Fordo because they cannot get to it,” said Khamenei. “They say you must not have a place which we cannot strike. Isn’t this ridiculous?”

Last December [2013] Khamenei said publicly he would not interfere in the negotiations and would leave the details to the diplomats. Now it appears he is playing a more shadowy game, either dictating terms to the Iranian team in Vienna or, perhaps, providing them the cover they need to stand firm.

A source close to the negotiations told IranWire that the numbers Khamenei cited are precisely what American negotiators have put on the table, and constitute one of the confidential topics being discussed over the past few months. Two days before Khamenei spoke, Under Secretary of States for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the senior American negotiator, said that Iran must end up with a fraction of the centrifuges it currently runs, but she did not cite any numbers.

The source said that Khamenei’s statements are technically significant, and are in line with the terms of the negotiations, which deal with SWUs rather than the number of centrifuges as such.

According to a European diplomat who is a member of his country’s nuclear negotiating team, the accuracy of the numbers leaked by Khamenei is both astonishing and worrisome, because he is limiting publicly the concessions that might be made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s team….

It is clear Khamenei wants to leave no doubt about his regime’s red lines in the negotiations…  But Khamenei doesn’t see this crisis only in terms of nukes. For the West, he says, the nuclear issue “is just an excuse” to pressure Iran, he said. “If it is not the nuclear issue they will come up with another excuse—human rights, women’s right, etc.”

Excerpts from Reza HaghighatNejad, Iran Supreme Leader Spills the Nuke Talk Secrets, Daily Beast, July 9, 2014

Nuclear Materials in Iraq – 2014 War

The U.N. atomic agency said on Thursday (July 10, 2014) it believed nuclear material which Iraq said had fallen into the hands of insurgents was “low grade” and did not pose a significant security risk.  Iraq told the United Nations that the material was used for scientific research at a university in the northern town of Mosul and appealed for help to “stave off the threat of their use by terrorists in Iraq or abroad”.

Iraq’s U.N. envoy this week also said that the government had lost control of a former chemical weapons facility to “armed terrorist groups” and was unable to fulfill its international obligations to destroy toxins kept there.  An al Qaeda offshoot, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, took over swathes of Syria and Iraq before renaming itself Islamic State in June and declaring its leader caliph – a title held by successors of the Prophet Mohammad.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “is aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details”, IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said.  “On the basis of the initial information we believe the material involved is low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk,” she said. “Nevertheless, any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.”

Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a July 8 letter that nearly 40 kg (88 pounds) of uranium compounds were kept at the university.  “Terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state,” he said.

However, a U.S. government source said it was not believed to be enriched uranium and therefore would be difficult to use to manufacture into a nuclear weapon. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the reported seizure likely posed no direct threat. But, he said: “The sheer fact that the terrorists … show unmistakeable interest in nuclear and chemical materials is, of course, very alarming”.

Any loss or theft of highly enriched uranium, plutonium or other types of radioactive material is potentially serious as militants could try to use them to make a crude nuclear device or a “dirty bomb”, experts say.  Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA chief inspector, said that if the material came from a university it could be laboratory chemicals or radiation shielding, consisting of natural or depleted uranium.  “You cannot make a nuclear explosive from this amount, but all uranium compounds are poisonous,” Heinonen told Reuters. “This material is also not ‘good’ enough for a dirty bomb.”  In a so-called “dirty bomb”, radioactive material such as might be found in a hospital or factory is combined with conventional explosives that disperse the hazardous radiation.

Citing U.N. investigations dating back ten years or more, Heinonen said there should be no enriched uranium in Mosul. The Vienna-based IAEA helped dismantle Iraq’s clandestine nuclear programme in the 1990s – during Heinonen’s three decades there.  “Iraq should not have any nuclear installation left which uses nuclear material in these quantities,” he said.  Another proliferation expert, Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank, said: “The Mosul region and several university departments were scoured again and again by U.N. inspectors for a decade after the first Gulf War (1990-1991) and they know what materials were stored there.”  “These included tons of uranium liquid wastes, sources, uranium oxides, and uranium tetrafluoride. Some of these items are still there, but there’s no enriched uranium,” he said.

Excerpts from Fredrik Dahl, UPDATE 4-Seized nuclear material in Iraq “low grade” – UN agency, Reuters, July 10, 2014

Choking Uranium Markets to Stop Nuclear Weapons

Making nuclear weapons requires access to materials—highly enriched uranium or plutonium—that do not exist in nature in a weapons-usable form.   The most important suppliers of nuclear technology have recently agreed guidelines to restrict access to the most sensitive industrial items, in the framework of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Nevertheless, the number of countries proficient in these industrial processes has increased over time, and it is now questionable whether a strategy based on close monitoring of technology ‘choke points’ is by itself a reliable barrier to nuclear proliferation.  Time to tighten regulation of the uranium market?

Not all the states that have developed a complex nuclear fuel cycle have naturally abundant uranium. This has created a global market for uranium that is relatively free—particularly compared with the market for sensitive technologies….

Many African states have experienced increased investment in their uranium extractive sectors in recent years. Many, though not all, have signed and ratified the 1996 African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (Pelindaba) Treaty, which entered into force in 2009. Furthermore, in recent years, the relevant countries have often worked with the IAEA to introduce an Additional Protocol to their safeguards agreement with the agency…

One proliferation risk inherent in the current system is that inadequate or falsified information connected to what appear to be legitimate transactions will facilitate uranium acquisition by countries that the producer country would not wish to supply….

A second risk is that uranium ore concentrate (UOC) is diverted, either from the site where it was processed or during transportation, so the legitimate owners no longer have control over it. UOC is usually produced at facilities close to mines—often at the mining site itself—to avoid the cost and inconvenience of transporting large quantities of very heavy ore in raw form to a processing plant.,,,UOC is usually packed into steel drums that are loaded into standard shipping containers for onward movement by road, rail or sea for further processing. The loss of custody over relatively small quantities of UOC represents a serious risk if diversion takes place regularly. The loss of even one full standard container during transport would be a serious proliferation risk by itself. There is thus a need for physical protection of the ore concentrate to reduce the risk of diversion at these stages.

A third risk is that some uranium extraction activity is not covered by the existing rules. For example, uranium extraction can be a side activity connected to gold mining or the production of phosphates. Regulations should cover all activities that could lead to uranium extraction, not only those where uranium extraction is the main stated objective.

Restricting access to natural uranium could be an important aspect of the global efforts to obstruct the spread of nuclear weapons

Excerpts, from  Ian Anthony and Lina Grip, The global market in natural uranium—from proliferation risk to non-proliferation opportunity, SIPRI, Apr. 13, 2013