Nuclear power and weapons – explaining the connections

This paper was written c.2002, apologies for dead web-links.

Nuclear power and weapons
Indirect links between power and weapons
Plutonium grades
Alternative reactor types and alternative fuel cycles
More information


This webpage discusses the numerous methods by which civil nuclear programs can – and do – contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, with emphasis on the links between nuclear power and weapons.

According to Ian Hore-Lacy from the Uranium Information Centre (2000): “Happily, proliferation is only a fraction of what had been feared when the NPT was set up, and none of the problem arises from the civil nuclear cycle.” Sadly, Hore-Lacy’s statement could hardly be further from the truth.

Ostensibly civil nuclear materials and facilities can be used in support of nuclear weapons programs in many ways:
* Production of plutonium in reactors followed by separation of plutonium from irradiated material in reprocessing facilities (or smaller facilities, sometimes called hot cells).
* Production of radionuclides other than plutonium for use in weapons, e.g. tritium, used to initiate or boost nuclear weapons.
* Diversion of fresh highly enriched uranium (HEU) research reactor fuel or extraction of HEU from spent fuel.
* Nuclear weapons-related research.
* Development of expertise for parallel or later use in a weapons program.
* Justifying the acquisition of other facilities capable of being used in support of a nuclear weapons program, such as enrichment or reprocessing facilities.
* Establishment or strengthening of a political constituency for nuclear weapons production (a ‘bomb lobby’).

These are not just hypothetical risks. On the contrary, the use of civil facilities and materials in nuclear weapons research or systematic weapons programs has been commonplace (Nuclear Weapon Archive, n.d.; Institute for Science and International Security, n.d.). It has occurred in the following countries: Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, North Korea, Norway, Pakistan, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Syria, Taiwan, and Yugoslavia. A few other countries could arguably be added to the list e.g. Burma’s suspected nuclear program, or Canada (because of its use of research reactors to produce plutonium for US and British nuclear weapons).

Overall, civil nuclear facilities and materials have been used for weapons R&D in about one third of all the countries with a nuclear industry of any significance, i.e. with power and/or research reactors. The Institute for Science and International Security (n.d.) collates information on nuclear programs and concludes that about 30 countries have sought nuclear weapons and ten succeeded – a similar strike rate of about one in three.

In a number of the countries in which civil materials and facilities have been used in support of military objectives, the weapons-related work was short-lived and fell short of the determined pursuit of nuclear weapons. However, civil programs provided the basis for the full-scale production of nuclear weapons in Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea. In other cases – with Iraq from the 1970s until 1991 being the most striking example – substantial progress had been made towards a weapons capability under cover of a civil program before the weapons program was terminated.

Civil and military nuclear programs also overlap to a greater or lesser degree in the five ‘declared’ weapons states – the US, the UK, Russia, China and France.


There are three methods of using the cover of a civil nuclear program for the acquisition of HEU for weapons production:
* Diversion of imported HEU. An example was the (abandoned) ‘crash program’ in Iraq in 1991 to build a nuclear weapon using imported HEU. The US alone has exported over 25 tonnes of HEU.
* Extraction of HEU from spent research reactor fuel. HEU has been used in many research reactors but power reactors use low enriched uranium or in some cases natural uranium.
* A nuclear power program or a uranium mining and export industry can be used to justify the development of enrichment facilities.

The acquisition of enrichment technology and expertise – ostensibly for civil programs – enabled South Africa and Pakistan to produce HEU which has been used for their HEU weapons arsenals.

The nuclear black market centred around the ‘father’ of the Pakistani bomb Abdul Qadeer Khan involved the transfer of enrichment know-how and/or facilities to North Korea, Iran and Libya.

An expansion of nuclear power would most likely result in the spread (horizontal proliferation) of enrichment technologies, justified by requirements and markets for low-enriched uranium for power reactors but also capable of being used to produce HEU for weapons.

Technical developments in the field of enrichment technology – such as the development of laser enrichment technology by the Silex company at Lucas Heights in Australia – could worsen the situation. Silex will potentially provide proliferators with an ideal enrichment capability as it is expected to have relatively low capital cost and low power consumption, and it is based on relatively simple and practical separation modules. (Greenpeace, 2004; Boureston and Ferguson, 2005.)

An Australian Strategic Policy Institute report released in August 2006 notes that an enrichment industry would give Australia “a potential ‘break-out’ capability whether that was our intention or not” and that this point is “unlikely to be missed by other countries, especially those in Australia’s region.” (Davies, 2006.)

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard drew a parallel between exporting unprocessed uranium and unprocessed wool and argued for value-adding processing in both cases. But there is a differerence between uranium and wool. The Lucas Heights nuclear agency once embarked on a secret uranium enrichment program; there was never a secret knitting program.


John Carlson (2000) from the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office states that “… in some of the countries having nuclear weapons, nuclear power remains insignificant or non-existent.” Carlson’s attempt to absolve civil nuclear programs from the proliferation problem ignores the well-documented use of civil nuclear facilities and materials in weapons programs as well as the important political ‘cover’ civil programs provide for military programs. It also ignores the more specific links between nuclear power and weapons proliferation.

Of the ten states known to have produced nuclear weapons:
* eight have nuclear power reactors.
* North Korea has no operating power reactors but an ‘Experimental Power Reactor’ is believed to have been the source of the fissile material (plutonium) used in the October 2006 nuclear bomb test, and North Korea has power reactors partly constructed under the Joint Framework Agreement.
* Israel has no power reactors, though the pretence of an interest in the development of nuclear power helped to justify nuclear transfers to Israel.

Power reactors are certainly used in support of India’s nuclear weapons program. This has long been suspected (Albright and Hibbs, 1992) and is no longer in doubt since India is refusing to subject numerous power reactors to safeguards under the US/India nuclear agreement.

The US has used a power reactor to produce tritium for use in nuclear weapons (in the 1990s)

The 1962 test of sub-weapon-grade plutonium by the US may have used plutonium from a power reactor.

Pakistan may be using power reactor/s in support of its nuclear weapons program.

North Korea’s October 2006 weapon test used plutonium from an ‘Experimental Power Reactor’.

Former Australian Prime Minister John Gorton certainly had military ambitions for the power reactor he pushed to have constructed at Jervis bay in NSW in the late 1960s – he later admitted that the agenda was to produce both electricity as well as plutonium for potential use in weapons.

According to Matthew Bunn, in France, “material for the weapons program [was] sometimes produced in power reactors”.

So there are a handful of cases of nuclear power reactors being used directly in support of weapons production. But the indirect links between nuclear power and weapons – discussed below – are by far the larger part of the problem.

The nuclear industry and its supporters claim that reprocessing is a ‘sensitive’ nuclear technology but power reactors are not. But of course they are part of the same problem. The existence of a reprocessing plant poses no proliferation risk in the absence of reactor-irradiated nuclear materials. Reactors pose no proliferation risk in the absence a reprocessing facility to separate fissile material from irradiated materials. Put reactors and reprocessing together and you have the capacity to produce and separate plutonium.

In short, the attempt to distance nuclear power programs from weapons proliferation is disingenuous. While currently-serving politicians and bureaucrats (and others) are prone to obfuscation on this point, several retired politicians have noted the link between power and weapons:
* Former US Vice President Al Gore said in 2006: “For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.” (<>)
* Former US President Bill Clinton said in 2006: “The push to bring back nuclear power as an antidote to global warming is a big problem. If you build more nuclear power plants we have toxic waste at least, bomb-making at worse.” (Clinton Global Initiative, September 2006.)
* Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said in 2006: “Any country with a nuclear power program “ipso facto ends up with a nuclear weapons capability”. (AAP, October 16, 2006.)


Nuclear power reactors per sé need not be directly involved in weapons research/production in order for a nuclear power program to provide cover and support for a weapons program.

The claim that power reactors have not become entangled in weapons programs ignores the pool of expertise required to run a nuclear power program and the actual and potential use of that expertise in military programs. For example, it is no coincidence that the five declared nuclear weapons states – the USA, Russia, China, France and the UK – all have nuclear power reactors and they account for 57% of global nuclear power output (203/370 gigawatts as at September 2006). Specific examples of power-weapons links – such as the use of a power reactor to produce tritium for weapons in the US – are of less importance than the broad pattern of civil programs providing a large pool of nuclear expertise from which military programs can draw.

The nuclear weapons programs in South Africa and Pakistan were clearly outgrowths of their power programs although enrichment plants, not power reactors, produced the fissile material for use in weapons.

Claims made about power reactors also ignore the fact that research and training reactors, ostensibly acquired in support of a power program or for other civil purposes, have been the plutonium source in India and Israel. Small volumes of plutonium have been produced in ‘civil’ research reactors then separated from irradiated materials in a number of countries suspected of or known to be interested in the development of a nuclear weapons capability –  including Iraq, Iran, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Yugoslavia, and possibly Romania. Pakistan announced in 1998 that a powerful ‘research’ reactor had begun operation at Khusab; if so, the reactor can produce unsafeguarded plutonium. (The links between research reactor programs and nuclear weapons are addressed in detail in Green, 2002.)

So nuclear power programs can facilitate weapons programs and weapons production even if power reactors per se are not used to produce fissile material for weapons.

Furthermore, nuclear power programs can facilitate weapons programs and weapons production even if power reactors are not actually built. Iraq provides a clear illustration of this point. While Iraq’s nuclear research program provided much cover for the weapons program, stated interest in developing nuclear power was also significant. According to Khidhir Hamza (1998), a senior nuclear scientist involved in Iraq’s weapons program: “Acquiring nuclear technology within the IAEA safeguards system was the first step in establishing the infrastructure necessary to develop nuclear weapons. In 1973, we decided to acquire a 40-megawatt research reactor, a fuel manufacturing plant, and nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, all under cover of acquiring the expertise needed to eventually build and operate nuclear power plants and produce and recycle nuclear fuel. Our hidden agenda was to clandestinely develop the expertise and infrastructure needed to produce weapon-grade plutonium.”

Carlson (2000) says: “If we look to the history of nuclear weapons development, we can see that those countries with nuclear weapons developed them before they developed nuclear power programs.” However, ostensibly civil nuclear programs clearly preceded and facilitated the successful development of nuclear weapons in India, Pakistan, and in the former nuclear weapons state South Africa.

Carlson (2006) states: “I have pointed out on numerous occasions that nuclear power as such is not a proliferation problem – rather the problem is with the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies …” The claim is false, no matter how many times Carlson makes it:
* Power reactors have been used directly in weapons programs.
* Power programs have facilitated and provided cover for weapons programs even without direct use of power reactor/s in the weapons program.
* And power reactors produce large volumes of weapons-useable plutonium and can be operated on a short irradiation cycle to produce large volumes of weapon-grade plutonium.


No-one disputes that ‘reactor-grade’ plutonium can be used in nuclear weapons but there is debate about the difficulty of so doing, and the likely cost in terms of reliability and yield.

Moreover, there is no dispute that power reactors can produce weapon-grade plutonium. This could hardly be simpler – all that needs to be done is to shorten the irradiation time, thereby maximising the production of plutonium-239 relative to other, unwanted plutonium isotopes. Indeed low burn-up, weapon-grade plutonium is produced in the normal course of operation of a power reactor, although in the normal course of operation it becomes fuel-grade then reactor-grade plutonium.

(The issue of plutonium grades is discussed in detail in the paper posted at:

Power reactors have been responsible for the production of a vast quantity of weapons-useable plutonium. Adding to the proliferation risk is the growing stockpile of separated plutonium, as reprocessing outstrips the use of plutonium in MOX (mixed oxide fuel containing plutonium and uranium).

A typical power reactor (1000 MWe) produces about 300 kilograms of plutonium each year. Total global production of plutonium in power reactors is about 70 tonnes per year. As at the end of 2003, power reactors had produced an estimated 1,600 tonnes of plutonium (Institute for Science and International Security, 2004).

Using the above figures, and assuming that 10 kilograms of (reactor-grade) plutonium is required to produce a weapon with a destructive power comparable to that of the plutonium weapon dropped on Nagasaki in 1945:
* The plutonium produced in a single reactor each year is sufficient for 30 weapons.
* Total global plutonium production in power reactors each year is sufficient to produce 7,000 weapons.
* Total accumulated ‘civil’ plutonium is sufficient for 160,000 weapons.

The production of vast amounts of plutonium in power reactors is problem enough, but the problem is greatly exacerbated by the separation of plutonium in reprocessing plants. Whereas separation of plutonium from spent fuel requires a reprocessing capability and is potentially hazardous because of the radioactivity of spent fuel, the use of separated plutonium for weapons production is far less complicated.

The problem is further exacerbated by ongoing plutonium separation in excess of its limited re-use in MOX. According to the Uranium Information Centre (2002), only about one third of separated plutonium has been used in MOX over the last 30 years. Thus the stockpile of separated plutonium continues to grow – about 15-20 tonnes of plutonium are separated from spent fuel each year but only 10-15 tonnes are fabricated into MOX fuel. (Albright and Kramer, 2004.)

Hence there is a growing stockpile of plutonium in unirradiated forms (separated or in MOX), currently amounting to about 240 tonnes.

What would it take to address this problem of growing stockpiles of unirradiated / separated plutonium? All that would need to be done is to slow or suspend reprocessing until the stockpile was drawn down. That the nuclear industry refuses to do this shows how little it cares about the WMD proliferation risks it creates.


Proliferation-resistant technologies are the subject of much discussion and some research (a number of examples are discussed in Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, n.d.)

However, there is little reason to believe that minimising proliferation risks will be a priority in the evolution of nuclear power technology. The growing stockpiles of unirradiated plutonium provide compelling evidence of the low priority given to non-proliferation initiatives compared to commercial and political (and sometime military) imperatives. Further, a number of the ‘advanced’ reactor concepts being studied involve the large-scale use of plutonium and the operation of fast breeder reactors (Burnie, 2005).

Plutonium breeder reactors rely on plutonium as the primary fuel. There are various possible configurations of breeder systems. Most rely on irradiation of a natural or depleted uranium blanket which produces plutonium which can be separated and used as fuel. Breeder reactors can potentially produce more plutonium than they consume, and the use of uranium is only a tiny fraction of that consumed in conventional reactors. (Hirsch et al., 2005, pp.33-35; von Hippel and Jones, 1997.) Breeder technology is highly problematic in relation to proliferation because it involves the large-scale production and separation of plutonium (although separation is not required in some proposed configurations). (Feiveson, 2001.) The proliferation of reprocessing capabilities is a likely outcome.

Fast neutron or fast spectrum reactors can be ‘breeders’ (producing more fissile material than they consume) or burners or they can produce as much fissile material as they consume. Burner reactor concepts (e.g. integral fast reactors) have some obvious attractions from a non-proliferation standpoint but the claims made about the proliferation resistance of these reactor concepts has been grossly overblown. Those issues are discussed in more detail at:

Like conventional reactors, proposed ‘Pebble Bed’ reactors are based on uranium fission. The nature of the fuel pebbles may make it somewhat more difficult to separate plutonium from irradiated fuel. However, uranium (or depleted uranium) targets could be inserted to produce weapon-grade plutonium for weapons. The enriched uranium fuel could be further enriched for HEU weapons – particularly since the proposed enrichment level of 9.6% uranium-235 is about twice the level of conventional reactor fuel. The reliance on enriched uranium will encourage the use and perhaps proliferation of enrichment plants, which can be used to produce HEU for weapons. (Harding, 2004.)

Fusion power systems remain a distant dream, and fusion also poses a number of weapons proliferation risks including the following:
* The production or supply of tritium which can be diverted for use in boosted nuclear weapons. (As mentioned above,  the USA used a power reactor to produce tritium for weapons in the 1990s.)
* Using neutron radiation to bombard a uranium blanket (leading to the production of fissile plutonium) or a thorium blanket (leading to the production of fissile uranium-233).
* Research in support of a (thermonuclear) weapon program. (Gsponer and Hurni, 2004; WISE/NIRS, 2004; Hirsch et al., 2005.)

The use of thorium-232 as a reactor fuel is sometimes suggested as a long-term energy source, partly because of its relative abundance compared to uranium. No thorium-based power system would negate proliferation risks altogether (Friedman, 1997; Feiveson, 2001). Neutron bombardment of thorium (indirectly) produces uranium-233, a fissile material which is subject to the same safeguards requirements as uranium-235. The possible use of highly enriched uranium or plutonium to initiate a thorium-232/uranium-233 reaction is a further proliferation concern. Most proposed thorium fuel cycles require reprocessing with the attendant proliferation risks. More information on the proliferation risks associated with thorium is posted at:


The International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards system is seriously flawed and under-resourced. IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei has described the IAEA’s basic inspection rights as “fairly limited”, complained about “half-hearted” efforts to improve the system, and expressed concern that the safeguards system operates on a “shoestring budget … comparable to a local police department”. (El Baradei, n.d.)

There is serious concern that the NPT/IAEA safeguards system could collapse. For example, the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (2004) noted: “We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation.”


Connections between civil and military nuclear programs – general information and country case studies:


Albright, David, and Mark Hibbs, September 1992, “India’s silent bomb”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.48, No.07, pp.27-31, <>.

Albright, David, and Kimberly Kramer, November/December 2004, “Fissile material: Stockpiles still growing”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.60, No.6, pp.14-16, <>.

Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, n.d., “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime: An overview of Institutional & Technical Issues”, <>.

Boureston, Jack, and Charles D. Ferguson, March/April 2005, “Laser enrichment: Separation anxiety”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.61, No.2, pp.14-18, <>.

Burnie, Shaun, April 2005, “Proliferation Report: sensitive nuclear technology and plutonium technologies in the Republic of Korea and Japan”, Greenpeace report, <>.

Carlson, John, 2000, “Nuclear Energy and Non-proliferation – Issues and Challenges: An Australian Perspective”, Paper prepared for JAIF Symposium on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy and Non-Proliferation, Tokyo, 9-10 March 2000.

Carlson, John, November 27, 2006, supplementary submission 30.2 to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, Inquiry into Uranium Sales To China, < jsct/8august2006/subs2/sub30_2.pdf>.

Davies, Andrew, 2006, Australian uranium exports and security: Preventing proliferation. Australian Strategic Policy Institute . <>.

El Baradei, Mohamed, n.d., various speeches and papers available at <>.

Feiveson, Harold, 2001, “The Search for Proliferation-Resistant Nuclear Power”, The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists, September/October 2001, Volume 54, Number 5, <>.

Friedman, John S., 1997, “More power to thorium?”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 53, No.5, September/October .

Green, Jim, 2002, “Research Reactors and Nuclear Weapons”, paper prepared for the Medical Association for the Prevention of War,

Greenpeace, 2004, “Secrets, Lies and Uranium Enrichment: The Classified Silex Project at Lucas Heights”,

Gsponer, A., and J-P. Hurni, 2004 “ITER: The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and the Nuclear Weapons Proliferation Implications of Thermonuclear-Fusion Energy Systems”, Independent Scientific Research Institute report number ISRI-04-01,

Harding, Jim, 2004, “Pebble Bed Modular Reactors—Status and Prospects”,

Hirsch, Helmut, Oda Becker, Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt, April 2005, “Nuclear Reactor Hazards: Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century”, Report prepared for Greenpeace International,

Hore-Lacy, Ian, 2000, “The Future of Nuclear Energy”,

ISIS – Institute for Science and International Security, n.d., “Nuclear Weapons Programs Worldwide: An Historical Overview”,

ISIS – Institute for Science and International Security, 2004, “Civil Plutonium Produced in Power Reactors”, <>.

Nuclear Weapon Archive, n.d., “Nuclear Weapon Nations and Arsenals”, <>.

UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility”, November 2004, <>.

Uranium Information Centre, 2002, “Plutonium”, Nuclear Issues Briefing Paper 18, <>.

von Hippel, Frank, and Suzanne Jones, 1997, “The slow death of the fast breeder”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.53, No.5, September/October.

WISE/NIRS, February 13, 2004, “The Proliferation Risks of ITER”, WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor, #603,