Recycle the Atomic Bomb

Can we really blow up the planet? Where do dismantled nuclear weapons go?
And how real is the threat of nuclear terrorism? Anna Polonyi talked to Kennette Benedict about weapons, power plants and policy.

The European: First, an urgent question. Are there really enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over?
Benedict: Yes. There are about 20 000 nuclear weapons in the world. The US has about 5 000 that are ready to be used. A thousand of them are on a high state of launch-readiness, which means that they can be launched within ten minutes of a command from the president. And the Russians also have about a thousand ready to be fired, and 6 000 can be deployed very quickly. Each of the bombs is anywhere from 40 to 300 times what the destructive damage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had. So yes, we have much more capacity than we need.

The European: Could you talk about the historical link between nuclear weapons and the development of nuclear energy?
Benedict: The bomb was created first. The scientists, though, always thought that the energy could be used for industrial energy and economic development. The reactors were already there, and they generated a lot of heat, as well as plutonium. The idea was that energy could be used to heat water and turn the turbines that would generate electricity. The nuclear reactors that were first invented were intended to produce plutonium for the atomic bombs used in the war. In the 1950s, business people in the United States began developing reactors for commercial power.

The European: In the 1950s, it was thought that producing electricity through nuclear power wasn’t lucrative enough. What has changed since then?
Benedict: Once you have the Highly Enriched Uranium (HUE) or plutonium, it takes a very small amount of this material to generate a lot of electricity. Once you get plants up and running, they produce a lot of electricity for what you are putting into it. They have been referred to as “cash cows.” The problem now is building new ones, because that involves a large initial capital investment. In the United States, the large one mega-watt plants, the standard in the industry, are now estimated to cost anywhere from 12 to 18 billion dollars. As the United States relies almost entirely on private investment; they are becoming almost too expensive to build at this point.

The European: Can you recycle the stuff of nuclear weapons for energy plants?
Benedict: Absolutely. The fuel that is used to produce bombs is almost the same that is used in reactors for civilian power. The largest transformation of nuclear bomb material to electricity came at the end of the Cold War. Under the Nunn-Lugar Threat Reduction legislation in 1994, the US helped the Russians dismantle by buying their spent fuel—that was part of what made this a palatable deal to them. We reprocessed that fuel and about 10% of our electricity in the United States today comes from dismantled nuclear Russian bombs.

The European: How does disarmament actually work – does it involve storing the nuclear weapons material for a long period of time?
Benedict: Some weapons material can be turned into fuel for nuclear power plants, but if you are not going to use the material, you need to store it for a very long time. In the United States, there is one depository; it’s the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIP) in New Mexico. We’ve been storing material from dismantled nuclear weapons and civilian research reactors in that facility now for over ten years. In a sense, this waste is more dangerous than that of nuclear power plants today, because plutonium that was used in the bombs is very radioactive and highly lethal.

The European: How hard is it to make a bomb using nuclear power plants?
Benedict: If you are a terrorist looking for this material, probably the easiest way to get it would be to search for it in Russia, where about 25% of their nuclear material is still around in places where you could either get in by picking a lock or bribing somebody. There have been reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency of interception of some amounts of highly enriched uranium. From the reports, it’s not entirely clear what the intention was. Individuals in Russia got hold of the material, and without quite knowing what they had, were trying to sell it because they needed the money and knew it was valuable. Either that, or you’d have to steal plutonium from either a Japanese or a French reactor. You could also steal HEU from a plant in the United States. It’s thought to be difficult to do. The nuclear industry in the US has upgraded their security – they hold regular exercises where outsiders play the role of terrorists trying to get into the nuclear plants to test their security measures.

The European: Can Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) guarantee safety?
Benedict: Yes, it is much harder to make a big explosion from it. There is a distinction between getting an atomic explosion and what is called a ‘dirty bomb,’ a big explosion using regular explosives and radiological material, like LEU, or material left over from hospitals. If you had such a bomb, say, in a subway, you wouldn’t be able to use that space for decades. It wouldn’t cause huge numbers of deaths, but much more havoc than the bombs that have gone off in major cities such as Madrid and London.

The European: How come we haven’t been using LEU since we began developing commercial nuclear energy?
Benedict: We did move to LEU in the United States. But it is a puzzle: when the US began the program Atoms for Peace during the Eisenhower administration in the mid-1950s, we actually sent HEU to developing countries for civilian use. It’s not entirely clear why – we simply had it, and we wanted to develop political alliances and markets for nuclear energy. Why we used HEU has never been explained to me satisfactorily, except that there was a surplus.

The European: Is it within our human capacities to grapple with something as complex as nuclear energy in a consistently safe way?
Benedict: We’ll see. We haven’t quite done it yet, have we? It partly depends on how much we want to protect societies and people, and how much financial investment goes into safety. There are always trade-offs between safety and cost. We still need to realize that any kind of nuclear energy being used is very tricky and complicated. It’s the most complex technology on earth – whether for civilian or military purposes. And we need to understand that it takes a lot of care and money to deal with nuclear safety properly.

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