Limiting the Spread of Weapon-Usable Fissile Materials
Jan 1, 1993
Since 1991, the world has worried that fissile materials from dismantled nuclear warheads will fall into the wrong hands. Although fears that military leftovers might be diverted and refashioned into nuclear weapons are well justified, little attention has been focused on a possibly more serious threat: the spread of weapon-usable plutonium separated from the spent fuel of civilian nuclear reactors. In Limiting the Spread of Weapon-Usable Fissile Materials, authors Brian G. Chow and Kenneth A. Solomon take an expansive view of the proliferation threat. They recommend a bold course of action for controlling the flow of weapon-usable fissile materials from both civilian and military sources. It involves
Chow and Solomon estimate that by the year 2003, 200 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium and another 330 metric tons of reactor-grade plutonium will be recovered from spent fuel. This means that there will be enough weapon-grade plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons to make 40,000 primitive bombs and enough reactor-grade plutonium from spent fuel to make another 47,000 bombs (see figure). By 2003, 1,000 metric tons of highly enriched uranium will be recovered from dismantled weapons—enough to make 65,000 bombs.
In addition to the rapid accumulation of weapon-usable materials, the presence of sensitive nuclear facilities throughout the world is a problem. Such facilities are a threat because they can produce weapon-usable materials. Any country that can obtain 15 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, 5 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium, or 7 kilograms of reactor-grade plutonium from a sensitive nuclear facility can build a bomb in a few days or weeks. No safeguard scheme, including that of the International Atomic Energy Agency, can protect the world if such sensitive materials and facilities are widely available.
To build a more proliferation-resistant future for civilian nuclear power worldwide would require that the use of plutonium as fuel be postponed indefinitely because it creates no economic benefits but much proliferation risk. More specifically, the following four-point plan should be enacted:
This four-point program will enable countries to use nuclear energy peacefully, well into the future, with far less risk of nuclear proliferation.
Economic hardship and political instability in the former Soviet republics make especially high the risk that their weapon-usable materials will be diverted to despotic national or subnational groups, or will be refashioned into bombs if Russia or other republics revert to tyranny. Buying and removing weapon-usable materials from the former Soviet republics eliminate this danger.
The United States has already committed $12 billion to purchasing blended-down uranium from Russia. Blending highly enriched uranium with natural or depleted uranium produces low-enriched uranium—an economical reactor fuel that is not suitable for weapons. The United States made this commitment to buy, expecting to recover the full amount through resale to domestic and foreign utilities.
However, Chow and Solomon predict that the United States will lose money on the transaction. Furthermore, $12 billion is not enough to buy and remove all the surplus highly enriched uranium from the former Soviet republics. Additional purchases will be required. The United States should encourage France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and others to repurchase blended-down uranium from the United States or to buy such uranium directly from the former Soviet republics. In this manner, U.S. allies can share the financial burden of the transaction and participate in reducing nuclear danger.
Because weapon-grade plutonium is difficult to render unusable for weapons, it poses a hazard if it remains in Russia and the political situation there takes a turn for the worse. And because weapon-grade plutonium is uneconomical to use in commercial nuclear power plants and is costly to store, it has very little value for Russia. Therefore, the United States, alone or with help from France and the United Kingdom, should encourage Russia to sell its surplus weapon-grade plutonium by offering $1 billion. Then the United States can remove the plutonium from Russia for safekeeping or disposal.
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