Proliferation risk of reactor grade plutonium

  • #1
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How high is the proliferation risk associated with reactor grade plutonium? I was under the impression that Pu-239 contaminated with too much Pu-240 and Pu-241 could not be practically used to produce nuclear weapons. I attended a nuclear issues talk which claimed that reactor grade fuel COULD be used to make nuclear weapons...

I've spoken with people who claim that reactor grade plutonium can't be used because it is too radioactive. The higher isotopes of Pu cause too much spontaneous fission and heat which make it both difficult to manufacture and implode.

Does anyone know of any reliable papers which discuss this? Most of what I've found makes claims but doesn't reference any papers which are accessible. I'd like to better understand the risk of stored reactor waste. Could it be made 'safe' with long burn ups resulting in lower grade Pu?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Astronuc
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Reactor grade Pu is not ideal for weapons production, particularly as burnup increases. Proliferation is not an issue in the various industrialized nations because 1.) they tend to already have dedicated weapons programs and/or 2.) they have no interest in proliferation. The Pu from the used LWR fuel, which comes from the conversion of U-238 into Pu-239 (and 240 and 241) may also be contaminated with Am-241, Am-243, Cm-242.

There may be some papers from Union of Concerned Scientists, Nuclear Threat Initiative or Nuclear Control Institute (although NCI tends to be alarmist and sometimes inaccurate or incorrect in their assessments) on RG Pu.

http://www.fas.org/nuke/intro/nuke/O_9705.htm


The concern over RG Pu is that those who would improperly use RG Pu would also be inclined to disregard radiological protection protocols.
 
  • #3
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I looked at the link you provided and it was a very interesting read. The article appears to be written from the perspective that 'fuel grade' plutonium is indeed a proliferation risk, although it certainly would not be a first choice for weapons material. The safegaurds that are in place strive to make sure that the Pu produced is of sufficiently low quality that it is not desirable for use as weapons material. Designing high burnup fuel seems to be the best bet for ensuring long term non proliferation from waste materials.
 
  • #4
Astronuc
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
18,983
2,332
I looked at the link you provided and it was a very interesting read. The article appears to be written from the perspective that 'fuel grade' plutonium is indeed a proliferation risk, although it certainly would not be a first choice for weapons material. The safegaurds that are in place strive to make sure that the Pu produced is of sufficiently low quality that it is not desirable for use as weapons material. Designing high burnup fuel seems to be the best bet for ensuring long term non proliferation from waste materials.
The fuel cycle in a commercial plant is designed from the standpoint of economics subject to technical and safety constraints. The high burnup is an economic matter primarily - most amount of energy from the least amount of fuel.

It's the physics, i.e. the isotopic vector of LWR fuel that makes it undesirable from a proliferation standpoint, and there are safeguards in place to ensure that the spent fuel is controlled. It's not going anywhere without a lot of people (including safety authorities) have approved and knowing about where the fuel is going and what it's final dispostion will be.

CANDU fuel cycle on the other hand is entirely different. There the exposure is much less than convential LWR fuel cycles, and consequently, there is an issue regarding proliferation/diversion. However, similar safeguards are in place to assure that the fuel is not diverted - from Western plants - or those under surveillance of IAEA.
 

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