Unsafeguardable - - Enriching Uranium and Reprocessing Spent Fuel

Last week's revelation that Saudi Arabia has been secretly collaborating with China to produce uranium yellowcake put a spotlight on the Saudi's worrisome nuclear program. Admittedly, producing yellowcake is only the first step toward enriching uranium. The long pole in the technical tent to make nuclear bombs is enriching uranium and reprocessing spent reactor fuel. The Saudis insist they want to enrich. Once they do, however, preventing possible military diversions to make bombs will be nearly impossible.

The attached in-depth research by Greg Jones, "Can Bulk Nuclear Fuel Facilities Be Effectively Safeguarded?" drives this point home. His short answer to his own question about enrichment and reprocessing plants is no, effective safeguards are not possible. First, would-be bomb makers can hide enrichment and reprocessing facilities from international inspectors, make a bomb and not get caught until one or more weapons are in hand.

Second, even declared enrichment plants making low enriched uranium that can't be made into bombs can be converted so quickly to produce weapons-grade uranium that little can be done before a nuclear weapon is built. Finally, measuring what declared enrichment and reprocessing plants produce is still so inaccurate that a would-be bomb maker could incrementally divert enough nuclear explosive material to make one or more bombs worth without tipping off any inspector. For all these reasons, it's best to prevent enrichment and reprocessing activities from ever starting in countries that lack nuclear weapons. 

This is especially true of a country like Saudi Arabia, which, in addition to hiding its latest nuclear collaboration with Beijing, lied about Jamal Khashoggi's ghastly murder, and covertly bought a Chinese missile factory. These three strikes ought to make cooperating with Riyadh on nuclear energy, much less, trusting them with enrichment or reprocessing, out of bounds. 

Greg Jones' analysis, of course, speaks to much more than just the Saudi case. It clarifies what kind of nuclear activities -- reprocessing and enrichment -- the U.S. and other nuclear supplier states should say no to. Thinking that we can let safeguard nonweapon states from diverting enrichment and reprocessing to bombs, is a mistake.

Aug 05, 2020
AUTHOR: Gregory S. Jones
Safeguarding Bulk Fuel Facilities (PDF) 258.92 KB

Can Bulk Nuclear Fuel Facilities Be Effectively Safeguarded?

Gregory S. Jones1

August 5, 2020

A fundamental problem with ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear energy is that the same nuclear material that is used as fuel in nuclear power reactors and the processes that are used to produce this fuel, can be used to produce the nuclear material required for nuclear weapons. Indeed, in many cases these fuel producing processes were first developed as part of nuclear weapon programs.

In an attempt to deal with this issue, peaceful nuclear activities are safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). According to the IAEA the technical objective of these safeguards is:

the timely detection of diversion of significant quantities of nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities to the manufacture of nuclear weapons or of other nuclear explosive devices or for purposes unknown and the deterrence of such diversion by the risk of early detection2

The IAEA defines a “significant quantity” of “direct use nuclear material” as 8 kilograms of plutonium or U-233 or 25 kilograms of U-235, contained in uranium that is enriched to at least 20%.3 The IAEA has defined “detection time” as “the maximum time that may elapse between diversion of a given amount of nuclear material and the detection of that diversion by IAEA safeguards activities.” The IAEA’s detection goals are “one month for unirradiated direct use material.”4

The most stressing facilities for the IAEA to safeguard are bulk nuclear fuel processing facilities. These are uranium enrichment plants, spent fuel reprocessing plants and fresh fuel manufacturing plants where plutonium fuel is produced (MOX fuel fabrication facilities). These facilities handle large quantities of nuclear material which is already fairly close to being usable in a nuclear weapon. The IAEA’s measurements of nuclear materials are often no more accurate than about 1%. Yet the annual throughput of these facilities is large enough that a 1% error can be significantly greater than one “significant quantity.”

A further concern is that the IAEA safeguards are designed to protect only against clandestine diversion of nuclear material. However, there is also the threat that a country can simply overtly seize the nuclear material in these facilities and quickly produce nuclear weapons. This problem suggests that bulk nuclear fuel facilities should not be located in nonnuclear weapon states.

1 This paper was written for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Though the author is also a part-time adjunct staff member at the RAND Corporation, this paper is not related to any RAND project and therefore RAND should not be mentioned in relation to this paper.
2 IAEA Safeguards Glossary 2001 Edition, International Nuclear Verification Series No. 3, IAEA, Vienna, June 2002, p. 13. https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/iaea_safeguards_glossary.pdf
3 Ibid., p. 23.
4 Ibid., p. 25.

To read the entire paper, click here.