Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: December 2009

9 - Nuclear Power and Weapons Proliferation


The discussion in the previous two chapters vividly illustrates the complexity of real world applications of nuclear reactor technology and its associated fuel cycle systems. We considered several issues that have brought this once promising technology to its knees: Economics, safety, and the environmental concerns surrounding waste management and disposal. In this chapter, we discuss the proliferation of nuclear weapons, another important problem related to the civilian use of nuclear power. Simply stated, commercial nuclear power carries with it a risk that technologies and materials from the nuclear fuel cycle will be misused for making nuclear bombs. There has been significant opposition to nuclear power on these grounds, and especially to nuclear exports to countries thought to be interested in acquiring nuclear weapons capability. In this chapter, we discuss the origin of these concerns, the history of how the proliferation issue arose, and the steps that have been taken by the international community to reduce the proliferation risks of nuclear power and, hence, to remove this obstacle to the peaceful application of nuclear technology.

Making Bombs

Nuclear fission weapons are made from either plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU). When a relatively small quantity of either of these materials (on the order of 10kg) is compressed by a modest amount of chemical explosives, an uncontrolled fission chain reaction can occur, releasing tremendous amounts of energy.