How HALEU nuclear power could lead to nuclear weapons

A recent Science paper (7/6) highlights one of the potentially disastrous risks the Dutton nuclear plan raises.

The most recent blog raised a question which media ought to ask Peter Dutton about his nuclear policy. It was “Are you aware that SMRs and proposed micro sized reactors are so inefficient that they would need HALEU (high-assay low enriched uranium) fuel to power the new stations? As this would require that, unlike traditional nuclear power stations which require only 3% to 5% enrichment, are you aware these new stations would require enrichment of 19.75% which would probably mean that a single reactor might contain enough HALUE to make a nuclear weapon?”

The suggested question was prompted by the Science paper by R. Scott Kemp. Edwin S. Lyman, Mark D. Steinert, Richard L.Garwin and Frank N.von Hieppel. To some it seemed to be rather a long bow but the paper outlines why it is not.

Their paper says: “Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been a major thrust of international policy-making for more than 70 years. Now, an explosion of interest in a nuclear reactor fuel called high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) spurred by billions of dollars in US Government funding threatens to undermine that.”

Trying to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons has not been very successful, of course, which makes the authors’ arguments even more concerning.

The authors point out that the initial industry thinking on nuclear reactors was that ideal fuel would be plutonium, but the relative abundance of uranium deposits made uranium considerably more favourable economically. Looking at uranium export possibilities in 1954 the US Las Alamos weapons research laboratory was used to arrive at the conclusion that fuels enriched to less than 10% were not weapons useable. They did concede, however, that between 10% and 20% the materials were of ‘weapon significance’.

However, the question of HALEU was largely ignored as it was only rarely used and limited mainly to research reactors and the quantities used would not have been practical to make a weapon – unless in the implausible case of many thefts from multiple research reactors around the same time.

In 1984 – an ominous date – J. Carson Mark the head of the Los Alamos Theoretical Division responsible for designing nuclear weapons said HALEU was weapons useable down to 10%.

The authors argue that “new information plus computational tools that facilitate weapons design have spread around the world, placing greater importance on controlling nuclear materials that were previously regarded as of marginal utility.”

The recent proposal to increase the use of HALEU requires a major rethink on standards and governance. For the physics buffs there is a formula – the Serber-Bethe-Feynman formula which relates of the potential explosive yield of a device. For those who are not physics buffs Serber was part of the Manhattan Project, Bethe and Feynman won Nobel Prizes while Feynman is probably the funniest Nobel Prize winner yet.

Using the formula the authors calculate that from quantities ranging from several hundred kilograms to about 1000kgs of 19.75% would produce an explosive yield equivalent to the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima.

“If the weapons usability of HALEU is borne out, then even a single reactor could pose serious security concerns”, the authors say.

This is not deterring the US DOE and Defence Departments from providing funds for more than 10 reactors using HALEU – including private ones such as the one planned by Bill Gates. The industry lobbying body, The Nuclear Energy Institute, has pushed the government to make more than a hundred tons of HALEU available annually from later this decade – all under a cost-sharing agreement which will be 50% funded by the US Government. The UK and French Governments are looking to get in on the program as well and you can bet a Dutton Government would be pushing to get to the head of this queue.

The authors conclude: “The decision on how to handle HALEU domestically has crucial downstream consequences for global security. Were HALEU to become a standard reactor fuel without appropriate restriction determined by an interagency security review, other countries would be able to obtain, produce and process weapons-useable HALEU with impunity, eliminating the distinction between peaceful and nonpeaceful nuclear programs. Such countries would be only days away from as bomb giving the international community no warning of forthcoming nuclear proliferation and virtually no opportunity to prevent it.”

Now both Australian political parties are committed to nuclear submarines which may or not be delivered within the lifetimes of the current Prime Minister and Opposition Leader let alone that of most of our children and probably our grandchildren as well.

But just think? If a Prime Minister Dutton was able to get the fuel for a HALEU power station, would you be absolutely confident that he might not want to also dabble in some nuclear weapons procurement as well?

PS. After the blog posted the list of questions for Dutton on nuclear power stations Tony Jaques promptly emailed and said the only questions the media would ask would be how much and where? As sure as night followed day on that’s night TV news a journalist asked precisely those questions.

And more on the possible costs. The Georgia power utility just finished the first two scratch-built American reactors in a generation at a cost of nearly $35 billion. The price tag for the expansion of Plant Vogtle from two of the traditional large reactors to four includes $11 billion in cost overruns. So, any claim by Dutton about what a nuclear power station would cost will be almost certainly be nonsense.

The blog’s friend John Spitzer brought the Science paper to its attention.