You are here

The myth of proliferation-resistant nuclear power

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

One of the most significant nuclear developments of 2017 has been the open acknowledgement by some prominent nuclear insiders and advocates of the connections between nuclear power and weapons. That's a 180-degree about-face from the usual denial of the power-weapons connections. Those acknowledgements (covered in detail in Nuclear Monitor #8501) are most obvious in the US and the UK: the contribution of the civil nuclear industry to maintaining the weapons industry is being used as a justification to increase government support for the civil industry.2

There are still some hold-outs. Michael Shellenberger from the fake environment group 'Environmental Progress' claims that "one of FOE-Greenpeace's biggest lies about nuclear energy is that it leads to weapons"3 and ‒ to further emphasize his stupidity and dishonesty ‒ Shellenberger recently told an IAEA conference that "nuclear energy prevents the spread of nuclear weapons".4 Likewise, Ted Norhaus, another self-styled 'pro-nuclear environmentalist', argues that to conflate nuclear power with nuclear weapons is "extremely misleading" because they involve different physics, different technologies and different institutions, and because "nuclear weapons today involve fusing two atoms together in an uncontrolled explosion."5 But there is plenty of overlap between the physics, technologies and institutions of nuclear power generation and weapons production6; and all nuclear weapons are either based on fission or they use fission to trigger fusion.

Pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman has written an interesting piece about the efforts of disgraced former US National Security Advisor Mike Flynn to broker deals between nuclear power vendors and potential clients in the Middle East.7 ACU Strategic Partners, a consulting firm that Flynn worked for, claimed that it could address fears about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East by deploying a "proliferation resistant" light water reactor, but, as Yurman notes, "there is no such thing when it comes to "light water reactors" like the Russian 1000 MW VVER which is what they offer to export customers."7

There is no such thing as a proliferation-resistant light water reactor, period. And there is no such thing as a proliferation-proof nuclear fuel cycle. The UK Royal Society noted in a 2011 report: "There is no proliferation proof nuclear fuel cycle. The dual use risk of nuclear materials and technology and in civil and military applications cannot be eliminated."8

Earlier this year, Victor Gilinsky, Marvin Miller, and Harmon Hubbard updated on important 2004 report on the proliferation dangers of light water reactors.9 Here are the conclusions and recommendations of the updated report:


The Light Water Reactor (LWR), the standard power source for most nuclear power stations around the world and the likely design for future ones, is not nearly so "proliferation resistant" as it has been widely advertised to be. From a proliferation point of view the LWR is generally preferable to other types of power reactors but the differences are more blurred than was previously appreciated.

With today's technology small, difficult to find, clandestine enrichment facilities or reprocessing plants could provide the reactor's owners with militarily significant quantities of nuclear explosives.

We need therefore to revise the conventional wisdom that LWRs are a safe proposition for siting in just about any country so long as there are no accompanying commercial uranium enrichment facilities or reprocessing facilities.

The principal "front end" concern relates to gas centrifuge enrichment plants. It is now widely understood that even if such plants are safeguarded and designed to produce low enriched uranium (LEU) for LWR fuel, their owners could convert them quickly to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for bombs. It is less appreciated that if the owners divert some of the LEU produced by the declared plant and used as feed for a clandestine enrichment plant, they can reduce the needed plant capacity by a factor of five. Moreover, such LEU feed need not rely on the existence of an LEU plant; it could come from processing the fuel pellets of a fresh LWR fuel reload. The possibility of using centrifuges to produce HEU for bombs has been enhanced by recent revelations regarding Pakistan's spread of this technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, and possibly others, with the fabrication of parts in a number of other countries.

It is also widely understood that reprocessing plants that separate plutonium from LWR spent fuel for later use as fuel could also provide plutonium for bombs. What is less understood, and emphasized in this report, is that small, clandestine reprocessing plants could provide the reactor's owners with militarily significant quantities of nuclear explosives. Such technology is well within the capabilities of countries like North Korea or Iran.

Clandestine reprocessing is only half of the plutonium concern. The other is that contrary to conventional wisdom LWRs can be copious sources of near-weapons grade plutonium that can be used to make powerful nuclear weapons. The widely debated issue of the usability for weapons of plutonium from LWR fuel irradiated to its commercial limit has diverted attention from the capacity of an LWR to produce large quantities of near-weapons grade plutonium from partially irradiated spent fuel. The characteristics of bombs based on this material would not be significantly different than those based on weapons grade plutonium.


We need to reassess the role of LWRs in international programs: They are not for everyone and we should be cautious about promoting their construction in worrisome countries. This is not a benign technology. At a minimum we should not support such technology where it is not clearly economic.

Clandestine enrichment and reprocessing: The IAEA and national intelligence has constantly to be on the lookout for clandestine plants because they can rapidly change the security equation. There needs to be much closer accounting of LEU fuel in view of its significance as possible feed for clandestine enrichment.

IAEA inspection of LWRs: IAEA inspection activities for LWRs to check on fuel inventories and refueling need adjustment upward in countries of concern from the point of view of potential bomb-making to take account of possible undiscovered clandestine reprocessing. Because of inevitable IAEA resource limitations it is necessary for the agency to concentrate the inspection where they are most important. It would help to gain support for such a system if it were possible to develop some objective way of defining "countries of concern." The IAEA should take greater account of the presence of weapons-grade plutonium or near weapons-grade plutonium in spent fuel pools and storage in devising its inspections. At the very least, the Agency should press for wider acceptance of near-real time surveillance of light water reactor fresh and spent fuel storage areas.

Enforcement: The NPT members must enforce the IAEA inspection system. An important purpose of IAEA safeguards is to deter nuclear weapons activities ‒ of would-be nuclear weapon countries ‒ by the threat of early detection. This assumes there will be a strong reaction to such an early detection of illicit activity. If would-be bomb-makers conclude they have nothing to fear because the international community is not likely to react to their violations, the whole system of control falls apart.



2. Nuclear Monitor #850, 'Nuclear power, weapons and 'national security'', 7 Sept 2017,

3. Nuclear Monitor #852, 30 Oct 2017, 'Exposing the misinformation of Michael Shellenberger and 'Environmental Progress'',

4. Michael Shellenberger, 30 Oct 2017, 'Saving Power in Danger: Michael Shellenberger Keynote Address to IAEA',

5. Ted Norhaus, 14 May 2017, 'Time to stop confusing nuclear weapons with nuclear power',

6. Nuclear Monitor #804, 28 May 2015, 'The myth of the peaceful atom',

7. Dan Yurman, 10 Dec 2017, 'Flynn's Saudi Nuclear Deal; What do we know so far?',

8. UK Royal Society, 13 Oct 2011, 'Fuel cycle stewardship in a nuclear renaissance',

9. Victor Gilinsky, Marvin Miller, and Harmon Hubbard, March 2017, 'A Fresh Examination of the Proliferation Dangers of Light Water Reactors', Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, Working Paper 1701,