Analysis of the 2010 Nuclear Summit and the obsession with highly enriched uranium

Politicians continue to profit from inflaming public opinion that terrorists are just about to acquire nuclear weapons. I cannot think of a politician who has lost votes by playing this gambit. Fortunately, the scenario is a Hollywood fantasy. The truth behind the proliferation scare campaign is easily discernible by considering the incentives. Who gains be restricting access to HEU to the existing nuclear weapon states (NWS)? Like most topics in foreign policy, politicians rarely talk about what the real issues are.

Here is an excerpt from a guest post on Brave New Climate by a highly respected chemist (a top-rated Seekerblog reliable source):

Guest post by DV82XL. He is a Canadian chemist and materials scientist (and regular, valued commenter on BNC).

(…) First let’s make one thing very clear: a subnational group (terrorists) cannot and never will be able to manufacture a nuclear weapon. This is true even if they were handed weapons-grade fissile material up front. Whatever the reasons for this drive to strip every last gram of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from every country in the world that is not one of the existing nuclear weapon states (NWS) ‘terrorists’ stealing this material to fabricate a weapon, is not one of them. HEU is treated by all countries that own it as if it were more valuable than gold, a critical mass worth of HEU represents a huge investment to a country who acquired it for a purpose, and as part of a program, the fact remains that this stuff is controlled and accounted for very closely, which is why it has never showed up on the black market.

Let’s examine the first contention. While it is true a gun-assembled HEU uranium bomb is conceptually simple, building one that will work, is not and requires more resources than an extranational group can muster. A careful review of the facts suggests that there are technical obstacles to such an attack that are insuperable, and there is no evidence that any terrorist group currently possesses the expertise necessary for a nuclear effort. Claims that this is possible glosses over the difficulty of finding the kinds of highly qualified experts such a project would need and omits real consideration of at least a dozen points in the process where something could, and very likely would, go wrong that would bring the whole project to an end.

(…) Looking at it like this, the terrorists can see that it would require a very unlikely series of events and a great deal of effort, and pressed for information, any high school physics teacher will tell them there are no guarantees the damned thing will work. Result, scrap Plan A and go to Plan B: Hijack four widebody aircraft…

(…) This brings us back around to the current nuclear summit and the obsession with weapons-grade uranium and plutonium in the hands of smaller states, and the threat of climate change. If the role of nuclear weapons is seen by smaller powers as a military tool to counter large conventional forces mounting an invasion, or even to counter the projection of might from something like a carrier task force, this renders conventional military power useless as a threat. The current members of the NWS club are also field large conventional forces as well, and several have shown no compunction in using them to further diplomatic or economic ends. The possibility of having those forces rendered useless by a major round of proliferation, particularly in regions where they currently exercise domination and especially in the event that climate change alters the relative value of those same regions, is obviously unpalatable. In short, this is not about keeping the peace, but maintaining the status quo in the international power structure.

There is a price to pay for this however. Putting an end to commercial use of HEU is going to cause problems of its own and these are not insignificant. In fact several countries are balking at the prospect and have said as much at the summit. Reading between the lines, it is also clear that their intransigence will be addressed at the G8 meeting later this year.

The two most widespread uses of HEU are as research reactor fuel and as targets for the production of medical and industrial isotopes. While few in number, test reactors, used for experimental fuel development for NPP, also need to be very powerful, and thus need enriched fuel. In addition to research and test reactors, there are also critical assemblies, subcritical assemblies, and pulse reactors that use fuels containing HEU. Critical and subcritical assemblies, for example, are typically used for either basic physics experimentation or to model the properties of proposed reactor cores, while pulsed reactors, are used to produce short, intensive power and radiation impacts.

(…) In short, activities that depend on high flux neutrons, in medicine, industry, and research, will be the private domain of those states that deploy nuclear weapons. This includes the development of nuclear energy, and power reactor design, which requires access to high flux neutrons to qualify material and assemblies, essentially closing the door on any further competition, (as well as the end of CANDU development) putting the NWS in virtual control of nuclear energy all over the globe, further extending their economic hegemony for the foreseeable future.

This is the real story here. The facts are all in front of us, and available to anyone who wishes to explore them. They are not that complex, and the geopolitical, economic and military ramifications of nuclear technology, and the impact of policy on them, are surprisingly simple to understand by anyone that takes the time to background themselves in these topics. I encourage everyone to do so as I believe you will draw the same conclusions I have in these matters.

Highly recommended, please read the whole thing. Do keep in mind that another motivator to promote this theme is the benefit that anti-nuclear advocates receive from creating the (irrational) fear that civilian nuclear electricity automatically means more nuclear weapons.