Nuclear Proliferation

In light of what is happening in Iran and North Korea it seems strange that there has been very little mentioned about the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

There are many countries now talking about becoming a nuclear power. For example Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan says that he wants to  actualize Nigeria’s dream of becoming a “nuclear power?1 – for peaceful purposes of course.

Many countries in the Middle East including Egypt, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Qatar & Kuwait, Yemen, Syria, Jordan,  Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan have expressed an interest in having the ‘nuclear option’2 – again for peaceful purposes. However a researcher from the University of Dubai has stated:

“The Iranians have left us no option and this is our answer to them. Now Arabs have no option but to start a program under the civilian banner”3

(I will not go into the politics but it must be mentioned that Israel already has a large number of nuclear weapons.)

Saudi Arabia has also threatened to develop nuclear weapons if Iran does4.

We then have Japan talking about phasing out its nuclear power stations. Japans former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said:

 “Having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons,”5

Having a nuclear power station gives a country the option of building a nuclear weapon the in future.

One of the main arguments against the link is that spent nuclear fuel cannot be made into a nuclear weapon. This is true but from this you cannot deduce that there is no link. Before I go into more detail I just one to go through some of the basics of making a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear Weapon Basics


Getting The Material

The problem with using Uranium-235 material of good enough purity. It is possible to get a self sustaining nuclear reaction from natural uranium with the use of a moderator. However the lower density of the fissile material means that it is more difficult to hold it together for long enough to get a good yield. Such bombs have been made but only produced a fizzle – only about 1Kt – only enough to destroy a town rather than a city (Hiroshima bomb was 15Kt)

To make a bomb you need to enrich natural uranium to contain more U-235. The level of enrichment of the fuel used in PWRs is not high enough to make a bomb – you would need to enrich it to at least 20% Uranium-235. The higher the level of enrichment the smaller the amount of uranium you need to make a nuclear bomb.

This is one of the reasons why some countries are against Iran enriching their own Uranium. They could just enrich it to fuel their reactor or they could continue to enrich to make bomb grate material.

Plutonium is produced in a nuclear reactor and is present in spent fuel. It contains the Pu-239 that you want but also contains Pu-240 which undergoes spontaneous fission and emits a lot of neutrons. Plutonium reprocessed from normal spent fuel is therefore no good for making a bomb.

However if you look at the graph at the bottom of my post Production and Fission of Transuranic Elements In A Nuclear Reactor you will see that if you keep the fuel in the reactor for less time then the ratio between Pu-239 and Pu-240 is much less. If you  get less than 7% Pu-240 then you can make the bomb.

Pakistan makes its weapons from Uranium while USA, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Israel and North Korea use plutonium. Many early reactors, including the UKs Magnox reactor (the design of which was given to North Korea) were designed to help produce materials for weapons programmes.

Uranium-233 has been used (for more information see this post) although it has several disadvantages one of which is the problems of getting thorium reactors to work.

Getting The Expertise

It is not just about getting the nuclear materials. If you have a nuclear power station then you gain the expertise in handling nuclear material and the necessary nuclear engineering. The country can legitimately train lots of people in these subjects.

I am not going to go into the problems of nuclear weapons and their proliferation. However, it can no longer be denied that there is a clear link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Further information about the link can be found elsewhere6.

1 Furore over nuclear power plant in Nigeria, The Guardian Nigeria, Thursday, 06 September 2012 (

2 Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries, World Nuclear Association (

3 Bangor Daily News 2007 (,1060871)

4 Prince Hints Saudi Arabia May Join Nuclear Arms Race, New York Times, December 6, 2011(, Riyadh will build nuclear weapons if Iran gets them, Saudi prince warns, The Guardian, Wednesday 29 June 2011 (

5 Japan pro-bomb voices grow louder amid nuke debate, associated Press 2012 (

6 Uranium Hydride Bomb, Wikipedia (

7 A Fresh Examination of the Proliferation Dangers of Light Water Reactors, The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, 2004, (


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