Plutonium Problem

Article excerpt

In assessing Graham Allison's roadmap ("The Will to Prevent: Global Challenges of Nuclear Proliferation," Fall 2006) "to predict and prevent global (nuclear) catastrophe," let's first get down to basics. He tells us, "If terrorists acquired the 100 pounds of HEU (highly enriched uranium) needed for an elementary nuclear bomb, they could have a working bomb in less than a year." It is curious that he does not mention plutonium here. Could it have been an oversight? Not likely.

In today's hyperventilation to nip nuclear terrorism in the bud, the flavor of the month is HEU. After decades of neglect, fledgling efforts to repatriate bomb-grade uranium from vulnerable research reactor sites have suddenly won outspoken backing from nonproliferation heavyweights like Allison and former US Senator Sam Nunn, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding recently doled out, compared with the couple of million in years past.

But how about plutonium? Can't terrorists make bombs with that, too? In 1987 the Nuclear Control Institute assembled a team of nuclear bomb designers (including the former head of weapons design at Los Alamos), to address whether terrorists could make nuclear weapons. The team concluded that they could do so with plutonium as well as with HEU.

In 1997 the US Department of Energy found that "at the lowest level of sophistication, a potential proliferating state or subnational group using designs and technologies no more sophisticated than those used in first-generation nuclear weapons could build a nuclear weapon from reactor-grade plutonium that would have an assured, reliable yield of one or a few kilotons (and a probable yield significantly higher than that)."

In the prescriptive, concluding section of his article, Allison does state, "As a fact of physics: no highly enriched uranium or plutonium, no nuclear bomb, no nuclear terrorism. …