Although enriched uranium was the fuel used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, plutonium was the fuel in the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki—and virtually all atomic bombs ever since have used plutonium, not enriched uranium.
Gathering plutonium for atomic bombs from spent fuel from a nuclear power plant can be accomplished by having a “hot cell”—s very common, indeed ubiquitous machine used in nuclear technology—and separating out the plutonium chemically with it.
Hot cells are shielded nuclear radiation chambers. They’re used to protect technicians inspecting nuclear fuel rods from a nuclear plant or processing medical isotopes. But they have long been a concern when it comes to the proliferation of nuclear weapons because of their potential use to carry out the chemical steps of extracting plutonium from reactor fuel.
When I was an anchor of the nightly news at the then Long Island commercial TV channel, WSNL-TV 35 years ago, anchorpeople from all over the U.S. were invited to a three-day symposium on nuclear weapons proliferation held at the Kennedy School at Harvard. The object was for us to know the facts behind the proliferation issue if and when we needed to report on what could be the terrible outcome of it. The hot cell was a major item discussed. It remains a major proliferation concern.
“A large power reactor,” they noted, “annually produces…hundreds of kilograms of plutonium.” Civilian nuclear power technology, they concluded, provides the way to make nuclear weapons, furnishing the material and the trained personnel.
Indeed, that’s how India got The Bomb in 1974. Canada supplied a nuclear reactor to be used for “peaceful purposes” and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission trained Indian engineers. And lo and behold, India had nuclear weapons.
It was the U.S. with its “Atoms for Peace” program in the 1950s that encouraged Iran to develop nuclear power. After the rupture of relations between the countries with the Iranian revolution of 1979, Russia stepped in, completing Bushehr I.
More details on how plutonium, a manmade element, is created in a nuclear power plant: 97 percent of the uranium fuel in a nuclear power plant is Uranium-238 which does not fission or split. Only 3 percent of the uranium is Uranium-235, which does fission or split, and it is from
this reaction that comes the heat used to boil water, turn a turbine and generate electricity. However, much of the Uranium-238 will, in proximity to fission, absorb a neutron and change to another element, Plutonium-239. Plutonium-239 is extremely radioactive and has a half-life of 24,100 years, so it’s radioactive for 240,000 years. It was first produced during the World War II Manhattan Project as an alternative fuel for atomic bombs to uranium, the supply of which was considered limited. Plutonium-239 became the preferred bomb fuel for atomic bombs and plutonium is also used as the “trigger” in hydrogen bombs.
Admiral Hyman Rickover, “father” of the U.S. nuclear navy and in charge of construction of America’s first nuclear power plant, Shippingport in Pennsylvania, opened in 1957, saw the light regarding nuclear power decades later—and voiced his completely changed position.
In a “farewell address” in 1982, to a committee of the U.S. Congress, Rickover bluntly declared that the world must “outlaw nuclear reactors.”
He said it had been “impossible to have any life on earth: that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn’t have any life—fish or anything. Gradually, about 2 billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet and probably in the entire system reduced and made it possible for some for some form of life to begin.”
“Now,” he continued, “when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible.… Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has life, in some cases for billions of years, and I think there the human race is going to wreck itself, and it’s far more important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it.”
As for atomic weaponry, Rickover said the “lesson of history” is that nations in war “will use whatever weaponry they have.”