"De-Clawed" Nuclear Fuel Would Provide Only Electricity, Not Bombs

By Eliza Strickland | March 5, 2009 3:37 pm

nuclear powerIsraeli researchers say they’ve developed a way to modify nuclear fuel so that it can be used only in power plants, and can’t be recycled later to build nuclear weapons. Lead researcher Yigal Ronen says the work could help “de-claw” some countries if nuclear fuel producers – the US, Russia, Germany, France and Japan – agree to put the denaturing additive they have proven effective into all plutonium [Jerusalem Post]. 

Israeli scientists suggest in their study that the element americium be added to the fuel at a level of 0.1 percent [Israel National News]. According to their research, the addition would neutralize the fissile plutonium produced by nuclear reactors, making that “denatured” plutonium unusable in a weapon. The research will be published in the journal Science and Global Security next month.

Ronen explains that when a country purchases a nuclear reactor from one of the five nuclear fuel producers, the sale includes nuclear fuel for the reactor. “Thus, if the five agree to insert the additive into fuel for countries now developing nuclear power – such as Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Namibia, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – they will have to use it for peaceful purposes rather than warfare” [The Register], says Ronen. However, the researchers say that countries with more advanced nuclear programs, like Iran, have other ways to produce weapons-grade fuel.

Ronen explains that Iran has other options besides recycling spent fuel if it wants to make nuclear weapons: Iran has centrifuges like those Iraq had, and small plutonium reactors. “Our work could solve only one part of the problem. The reality is more complicated, and denaturing is not relevant for Iran’s other options. Iran would be able to continue to threaten the world with the other two options if the world doesn’t stop it,” he explained [Jerusalem Post].

The news comes just as the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is looking into U.S. intelligence reports that Syria had almost built a North Korean-designed, nuclear reactor meant to yield bomb-grade plutonium before Israel bombed it in 2007. Last month, the IAEA said inspectors had found enough traces of uranium in soil samples taken in a trip to the bombed site granted by Syria last June to constitute a “significant” find, and satellite pictures taken before the Israeli bombing revealed a building resembling a reactor [Reuters].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: End of the Plutonium Age dives into the enduring mysteries of plutonium
DISCOVER: Return of Nuclear Winter explains how proliferation gives new life to an old fear
DISCOVER: Nuke Power Is Earth’s Friend

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • hassani

    This is rubbish. Iran is not “threatening” anyone and in fact it has been the subject of threats of nuclear first strikes by President Bush, which is itself a crime.

    Quite the contrary, Iran has offered to place additional limits on its nuclear program — going beyond its legal obligations — to further ensure that the program cannot be used to make bombs. For example, Iran has offered to open the program to multinational participation.

    However, the US insists that Iran has to totally give up enrichment and rely solely on foreign sources for its nuclear energy fuel. No country would accept that. The problem is not Iran, it is the US insistence of robbing Iran (and other developing nations) of independent access to the nuclear fuel cycle.

  • Grant H

    Nobody trusts Iran, and fair enough, the whole country is religious. But the law was made as it is and they haven’t broken it (in this regard anyway).
    About Iran: I find their quirky obsession with nose jobs surprising. There is just so much about that country I just don’t know anything about. It’s interesting and compelling.

  • Lizzie

    Iran’s nuclear program started under the Shah, with the encouragement and participation of the United States, because it will free up more oil for export rather than domestic consumption. It makes economic sense.

    SInce the 1980s, the US has led efforts to restrict the technology to make nuclear reactor fuel, ostensibly due to “non-proliferation” reasons, but the “incidental” side effect is that a few countries would then monopolize nuclear fuel production. Developing countries (such as Iran, but hardly limited to Iran) naturally have a problem with this, especially as more and more countries turn to nuclear power (both Argentina and Brazil have developed the same technology as Iran, while providing less access to international inspectors than Iran.) So, this conflict really isn’t about nuclear weapons — it is about controlling nuclear energy resources. “Non-Proliferation” is a convenient pretext, that’s all.

  • Lizzie

    Incidentally, Iran has offered to give up plutonium reprocessing – so it would not be able to make a bomb that way either.

  • Jmalis11

    Thorium power is better. Stock Symbol THPW.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Oddly enough, I woke up and twittered that Thorium was the Thunder Element.

  • Blah

    Once again we’ve got a bunch of Iranians on here advertising how wonderful they are, than we’ve got some owners of the THPW stock trying to inflate their earnings.

    Good job guys.

  • Larry

    Actually this is relevant to Iran, offer to give the denatured fuel in a large quantity in return for complete destruction of fuel processing capabilities. If they agree clearly they have as they claim a civilian power program, if they refuse then there should be no question that its a cover for weapons development.

  • Grace

    That’s not a fix, Larry. It doesn’t address Iran’s long-term need for independent, self-sufficient energy production – something it needs so that its electric grid can’t be held as a political hostage to the countries with a monopoly on fuel production. Iran has the independence it has now in large part because of its oil supply, which won’t last forever. If it can refine its own fuel – which can be purchased in raw form from a large number of countries around the world, not just a handful of nuclear powers – it can remain independent in the long term.

  • Ken Erickson

    A Canadian was maced when entering the U.S. because he insisted on being treated in a respectful manner. I suspect the Iranians have feelings parallel to those of the Canadian for similar sorts of reasons.

  • Stuart Wall

    How can someone say that Iran is not threatening anyone, when their president constantly talks about wiping Israel off the map, and some of their populace chant death to America? I think this discovery by the Israelis is a fantastic first step in making nuclear power safer. You have to credit Israel for doing everything possible to resolve their national security peacefully.

  • John Lerch

    I don’t see how adding Americium to the fuel would prevent its use as a bomb. Isn’t Americium in a different sub-column on the periodic table? As such isn’t is possible to remove it chemically? It would generate nuclear waste; but it would be a lot easier than centrifrugation.

  • Dean

    I would say the time for this is when ALL nations give up all their bombs, why would any nation guarantee it’s military inferiority to any other nation? This Israeli line of “we’re the good guys” is bunk.

  • J

    As a nuclear engineer and avid watcher of issues related to Iran’s nuclear development I believe I can offer a likely answer (though perhaps slightly incorrect since I haven’t seen the research to be certain).
    Americium is a fissile element, but it’s properties prevent it from being useful as a weapon – it’s basically prevented from going critical in the ways most desired for bombs I believe. It also soaks up neutrons at the speed that are given off when exploding a nuclear weapon (extremely simplified, but accurate I think). If too many neutrons are soaked up by Am instead of plutonium, then the bomb doesn’t really explode – or at least only a small explosion on the order of something with some C4 I think.
    In the basic chemical reprocessing of nuclear fuels we have today in a few places (and as were used in the big US and Russian plutonium production facilities), you created alot of Plutonium without creating Americium because they are too chemically close to separate.
    If you “dope” the fuel with Am that doesn’t get used up at the slower neutron speeds that you use to make electricity, it will still be there if someone tries to extract the plutonium for a bomb. I believe that was the basic idea, and the research probably just determined the exact amounts needed.

    There seem to be 2 ways to get material for a nuclear bomb: reprocess fuel after you use it in a reactor for electricity, or to enrich Uranium to the point that you can craft it into a weapon. North Korea went for the 1st option, Iran is suspected of the second.

    The reason why Iran’s motives are suspect even by the IAEA is that they don’t have enough natural uranium to make it worth developing an enrichment program – especially when they have vast reserves of natural gas that provide a cheaper alternative. For somewhat of an analogy; you wouldn’t build a new oil refinery to refine enough oil for one tank of gas. That’s sort of the situation in Iran – they only have enough uranium for a few reactor loads, so why spend billions of dollars developing a plant and technology to make fuel? The fear – and prevailing consensus – is the ability to use that same technology to make the uranium into a weapon.

    But the bottom line: Am is not easy to separate in meaningful amounts when you reprocess nuclear fuel. If you dope the fuel with Am, an attempted bomb will fissile. There are likely ways around this, just like anything else in the world, but the more effort it takes, the more money it costs, and the more likely someone is to discover what is trying to be done – and this would be a clear indicator that someone was attempting to build a weapon.

  • TJ

    Reply to “J” . If the IAEA were to require Iran and ALL other countries to use thorium + americum in their uclear generation plants wouldn’t that be a win-win-win situation for the world?

  • Allen Ev.

    We should start by “declawing” all weapons grade material from decommissioned nuclear warheads.

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    Just because a thing can be done does not mean that it should be done. The money and resources which are being spent on this type of research would be better spent, in my opinion, on solar, wind and water generated electricity. Stopping all “research” of this nature, by all nations, would create a safer world for all of us.

  • mike

    It is entirely possible to have a nuclear fuel cycle that does not produce weapons useable waste.
    Why do we still use the 1940’s style Pressurized Water Reactor with its need for Uranium Enrichment? 65 years later we have other choices. If the standard was a Thorium fuel cycle, then we would know that any country pursuing Uranium enrichment was doing so for weapons.

    Let’s have 21st century Nuclear Power where it is possible to have NO long lived waste, and energy abundance for all people on Earth.

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