Nuclear weapons from nuclear waste

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(April 9, 1999) There is a new generation of nuclear weapons which can be produced from radioactive waste. Washington's Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) has detailed how materials found in radioactive waste can be used to make nuclear weapons. However, these materials have no special status under IAEA safeguards.

(508.4994) WISE Amsterdam - In the March 31 issue of Jane Defence Weekly, David Albright, head of ISIS, said there are two man-made elements of particular concern --neptunium 237 and americium 241-- both of which are by-products of nuclear power reactors. Albright believes neptunium 237 may already have been used in nuclear weapons. "There is a strong feeling within the nuclear establishment that both America and France have actually conducted nuclear explosive experiments with neptunium 237, thus proving the suitability of this material for use in nuclear explosives," he said.

As the separation of neptunium 237 and americium 241 was being evaluated by more countries starting in the early 1990s, Washington had no choice but to state openly that these materials could be used in nuclear weapons and that they required more domestic and international controls against misuse. In November last year the US Department of Energy declassified information that nuclear explosives could be made from these materials.

According to Albright, the world inventory of neptunium and americium is estimated to exceed 80 metric tons (enough for more than 2,000 nuclear warheads) and growing by about 10 tons annually. The principal concern is that a civilian reprocessing facility or a waste processing facility anywhere in the world - and in full compliance with its safeguards obligations--could extract neptunium 237 and americium 241 and they would not be subject to any sort of international inspection.

In essence, Albright added, a non-weapon state could accumulate significant quantities of these separated nuclear explosive materials beyond the scope of IAEA verification. At present, only plutonium, or enriched uranium 235 or uranium 233, is required by the IAEA to be safeguarded (in non-nuclear weapon states). To include these new categories as "special fissionable materials" by the IAEA is likely to take time. Nonetheless, the IAEA plans to increase the monitoring of these materials in non-nuclear states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As a result of the belief in partitioning and transmutation the amount of separated neptunium and americium is increasing and could further increase also in non-nuclear weapons states. Through transmutation, it is believed that waste is easier to dispose of, but the process includes the separation of actinites. Since the early 1990s, several key countries, including several non-nuclear weapons states, have stepped up research into the removal of actinites from nuclear waste.

As a result of this, high-level waste has now to be considered proliferation-prone, although plutonium has been separated from it.

Source: Jane's Defence Weekly, 31 March 1999
Contact: WISE Amsterdam