Why plutonium is so dangerous

A World Awash in a Nuclear Explosive? TruthOut,  19 March 2014 12:24 By Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey SmithCenter for Public Integrity | Report Washington “……..Just a Few Pounds Worth of Plutonium? There’s been a ghoulish debate between officials and independent scientists about how much plutonium is needed to fuel a clandestine bomb. But both agree it’s not much.

The U.S. bomb that destroyed half of Nagasaki in 1945 had 6.2 kilograms of plutonium in it, or 13.6 pounds. But experts say it was over-engineered — only one kilogram fissioned, they concluded later.

The International Atomic Energy Agency nonetheless decided years ago that eight kilograms of plutonium, or 17.6 pounds, are needed to make a bomb and so that’s the quantity its monitoring is geared to stop from getting loose.

Cochran and his NRDC colleague Christopher Paine challenged the IAEA standard in 1995 with a study concluding that only 3 kilograms — 6.6 pounds — would be needed to fashion a “very respectable” bomb with the explosive power of a kiloton, or 1,000 tons of TNT. But no matter who is right, Rokkasho’s annual plutonium production would be enough for 1,000 weapons or more.

To build an efficient plutonium bomb, the plutonium would have to be shaped into a sphere so it could be compressed with conventional explosives and rapidly reach critical mass, Cochran said. If the plutonium is crammed together too slowly, it becomes, according to an old weapons-designer joke, “fizzle” material instead of fissile material. It detonates prematurely, and only a tiny fraction is fissioned.

But a skilled, well-financed team could take a thermos-full, Cochran says, shape it into a hollow sphere about the size of a baseball or softball, pack it inside a sphere of explosives in a way that focuses the blast inward and turn it into a weapon that could produce a nuclear blast of one or two kilotons, equal to 1,000 or 2,000 tons of TNT.

“The technology needed to make a plutonium bomb is very old,” Cochran says. “This is not rocket science. So it’s within the capability of a team of people who had some sophistication.”

He paused. “This is why people worry about plutonium.”

A one-kiloton device exploded at ground level in a heavily populated area would be comparable in its effects to the Nagasaki bomb that exploded more than 1,500 feet in the sky, causing about 75,000 deaths and a similar number of injuries. A 2003 study by Harvard’s Matthew Bunn, a former White House adviser now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, pegged the direct cost of damage from a 10-kiloton bomb at $1 trillion, along with incalculable political, economic, and social chaos.

The danger that plutonium harvested from the spent fuel of civilian reactors could be used to build nuclear weapons was dramatized in 1974. India used a reactor built by Canada under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program to produce plutonium that fueled the first nuclear explosive detonated by a country other than the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The bomb was built from plutonium produced by India’s CIRUS — for “Canadian-Indian Reactor, U.S.” — at the Trombay nuclear complex north of the city now called Mumbai. CIRUS is a type of reactor that uses heavy water as a moderator and can run on natural rather than enriched uranium. The research reactor being built by Iran at Arak is also a heavy-water design.

Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter reacted by trying to discourage the development of civilian plutonium programs at home and abroad. Carter tried to stop Japan’s by withholding permission to use U.S.-supplied materials and technology for the effort. But Japan insisted on proceeding, and the White House settled for an agreement under which Japan would seek permission for each new batch it made.

Then, in 1982, President Reagan issued a secret National Security Decision Directive giving Japan “advance consent” to produce plutonium and trade it with European allies, as long as it met certain guidelines. And in 1987, Reagan went further, publicly granting Japan blanket approval essentially to make all the plutonium it wished, as part of a broader nuclear trade agreement. The groundwork for Rokkasho had thus been laid.http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22531-a-world-awash-in-a-nuclear-explosive

 

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