No internationally-regulated commercial nuclear plant can make nuclear-weapons materials. They are under constant surveillance. Those who try, face serious challenges. Nuclear-power reactors are unsuitable for making nuclear bombs. North Korea is a poster child for their defiance of the law enforcement attempts. They have been ruthless in their disregard of the entire country’s population unable to meet their basic human needs. Their people suffer both economically with food shortages and politically with sanctions that keep them both isolated and shunned. Partly because they chose a path of obtaining a production reactor to acquire the weapons-grade fuel in order to make nuclear weapons.
With regard to geopolitical affairs the definition of the word “weapon” has been pushed to the unthinkable. Take, for example, the commercial airliners used as weapons to crash into the Twin Towers of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Let’s set the record straight. A nuclear reactor cannot have a nuclear explosion. The dilute mix of nuclear elements makes a nuclear explosion impossible. The purity levels of the specific isotopes are far too low. Very rarely relatively small hydrogen gas explosions have been known to happen but with minimal threat beyond the nuclear plant’s perimeter.
Nuclear plants are very resistant to acts of sabotage or natural disaster and built to handle earthquakes, floods and terrorist attacks.
Because of the degree of specialized knowledge and resources needed for a large team from many disciplines, no single individual could ever build a nuclear weapon or a nuclear reactor. The monitoring of nuclear facilities is aided by the fact that the detection of even the smallest levels of radiation are now possible. Let’s just say the probabilities are extremely low that a reactor or a bomb would be built undetected. The numerous challenges are listed below.
The cost of obtaining the weapon is most likely the first consideration. The pursuit of nuclear weapons is so costly that only strong economies can even consider doing it and maintaining, forever, whatever they build. It would involve a multi-disciplinary team of experts all at the top in their fields. Then collecting the required amount of fissile material for processing to the correct enrichment is a long and tedious process that could take years.
With safeguards in place to monitor and detect any kinds of irregular activity as well as the treaties of international law that have been negotiated, there are serious penalties a country faces if they break those laws. Any hint of foul play and the country suddenly becomes the focus of numerous law enforcement agencies such as the United Nations Security Council.
The IAEA sets the guidelines for enforcement by the security council and other agencies. But the IAEA has defined it’s objective as follows: “The Agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.”
When such weapons are so destructive that whole populations are threatened the greatest opposition will be from neighboring countries. But most countries will protest any country wanting nuclear weapons. So there is a risk of creating new enemies and hostile relations with the many countries that would be affected.
The team required to create a nuclear weapon would need people from several very different disciplines that would need to be highly skilled and knowledgeable. Depending on the kind of nuclear weapon there would be varying levels of complexity. If it is a missile with guidance capability, that has specific rocket design capability, very specialized detonators, precise chemistry and nuclear engineering and fuel source that will require maintaining a balance of ingredients without impurities.
Because the challenges are so great, it is far more likely that a conventional means of creating weapons fuel would be used such as gas centrifuges or specially designed non-commercial research reactors. Next generation reactors have built-in advantages for improved safety and proliferation resistance.
Reactors are Resistant to Terrorist and Military Threats
A plot to steal fuel from a conventional reactor is a very difficult task and would very likely fail. They are both well guarded and monitored. The elements available for bomb creation from a reactor are quite limited. Uranium is the most likely target since the plutonium that exists in reactors does not provide the essential balance of isotopes.
Generation IV Reactors are more Resistant to Terrorist or Military Threats
Any attempts to steal fuel from the new reactor designs that are in the development and design stages called molten salt reactors, would be particularly challenging due to high heat and high levels of radiation.
Providing detailed explanations of the various types of next generation reactors is beyond the scope of this article but one point is worth mentioning. The two types of molten salt reactors that can be classified into general categories are the single fluid and the dual fluid designs. The industry will most likely see the first Generation IV licenses for a single fluid design molten salt reactor. This provides an advantage of having the fuel mix prepared by mixing in what’s referred to as denatured elements of specific isotopes such as U238 and U232. This has a poisoning effect to the mixtures ability to be used as weapons fuel.
The topic of proliferation is complex and providing an in-depth analysis is a daunting exercise that goes against common sense for the average person and beyond the scope of our target reader. Anybody with the knowledge to understand such a breakdown of information would be educating themselves to be potential practitioners of making bombs. So asking the question “are bombs possible?” is tempting when the myth is so often repeated by the antinuclear groups as being feasible. The fact is that it is highly improbable as outlined in each of the five challenges mentioned above. The probability of success in eliminating all the challenges is compounded mathematically at each level. So put your mind to rest because after all we have the more immediate threat of things like car crashes, and coal ash ponds sliding into rivers, and toxic chemical plants leaking into rivers and exploding oil trains.