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Reactors spread the bomb

anon — June 1984

Editors’ note: This month, the Campaign for a Nuclear-Free Ontario is beginning its drive to halt construction of the Darlington nuclear power facility, among its other objectives (See Page 1).

Many peace activists are especially concerned about Canada’s nuclear energy program because CANDU reactors, which are widely sold overseas, are ideal for nations who have military intentions.

The CANDU produces large amounts of relatively pure plutonium, an element which does not occur in nature, and which is used in the” manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Moreover, CANDU reactors are fuelled with natural uranium. Any nation which has a CANDU and has uranium reserves within its borders is therefore free from dependence upon international markets for fuel.

Finally, the CANDU’s continuous refuelling system enables governments to remove plutonium from the reactor without shutting down. Spent fuel can therefore be diverted for military purposes without detection by international :authorities, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In order to further clarify this relationship between nuclear energy and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, The Peace Calendar is reprinting excerpts from two articles, one published by the British organization Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, the other published in Canada’s Nuclear Free Press.

What is nuclear proliferation?

Nuclear proliferation can be broadly defined as the increase of the total number of nuclear weapons in the world. This increase happens in two ways. The first (so-called ‘vertical proliferation’) is the acquisition of new nuclear weapons by a country (such as the USA or the USSR) which already possesses them. The second way (‘horizontal proliferation’) is the spread of nuclear weapon capability to more and more countries.

This Briefing is concerned only with horizontal proliferation.

A short history of horizontal proliferation

As well as the six countries listed above as having carried out successful nuclear tests, two more; South Africa and Israel, have almost certainly developed their own weapons in secret. A further three (Pakistan, Brazil, and Argentina) are believed to be very close to a bomb production capacity, while many more could, given the appropriate political conditions, develop the necessary technology in one or two decades. In this last group. one could include nearly all the European states and countries such as Libya and Iraq which are in strategically sensitive areas of the world.

How bombs are made: the nuclear link

The actual production of crude nuclear fission weapons does not present great technical problems once the appropriate raw materials have been obtained. About 20 kg of weapon-grade uranium or 5 kg of weapon-grade plutonium is sufficient. (Weapon-grade plutonium usually implies a concentration of the isotope plutonium 239 of greater than 90%.) Provided the weapon is skillfully designed and constructed, a bomb can even be made from reactor-grade plutonium.

Weapon-grade uranium can be produced using the uranium ore and enrichment facilities of a civilian nuclear programme. Similarly the spent fuel rods of power reactors can be reprocessed to yield plutonium for a bomb. Thus any country which possesses either natural uranium and an enrichment facility or nuclear reactor with a reprocessing facility has the potential to develop nuclear weapons.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty and other international safeguards

(a) The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

The Non-Proliferation Treaty was designed to make possible the widespread peaceful use of nuclear power, while preventing weapon development in non-nuclear-weapon states. By adhering to the treaty, states agree that in return for access to nuclear technology and materials, they will renounce all attempts to produce nuclear weapons. For their part, nuclear weapon states agree to work towards nuclear disarmament and eventual abolition of all nuclear weapon systems. The transfer of nuclear weapons to either weapon or non-weapon states is prohibited.

It is obvious that for such a treaty to be fully effective it must be universally applied. Although by July 1983, 118 non-nuclear weapon states had signed the treaty, important non-signatories still include India, Pakistan, China, South Africa, Israel, Brazil and Argentina, and there is little incentive for non-signatories to join the fold when the nuclear industry is willing to supply sensitive materials to both signatories and non-signatories alike.

(b) The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Signatories of the NPT agree to submit to IAEA ‘safeguards,’ that is, to the inspection and monitoring of their facilities by the IAEA. IAEA inspectors check inventories and analyze samples of reactor materials while television cameras and seals protect sensitive areas. Even under optimum conditions however, these safeguards leave much to be desired. Plutonium is notoriously difficult to weigh and measure and experience shows that it is difficult to maintain records to an accuracy of even 1 %.

At present estimates, world nuclear power could produce over 2000 tonnes of plutonium by the year 2000. With this level of accuracy in accounting, the equivalent of several thousand bombs could go missing and not even be noticed.

Even assuming measurements could be accurately carried out, IAEA inspectors have little power. They can be refused access to key areas, inspections can be postponed, accounts can be fiddled and, if all else fails, a state can simply withdraw from the NPT on 90 days notice. The Israeli raid on the Iraqi ‘Osirak’ reactor was an outstanding illustration of the possible consequences of these limitations. Although covered by the IAEA, the Israelis suspected the Iraqis of avoiding IAEA surveillance and took preemptive action.

It should also be pointed out that some of the roles of the IAEA are rather contradictory. In addition to being the nuclear watchdog body, it is also charged with the development of ‘peaceful’ nuclear energy and it is easy to see how these two roles can come into conflict in situations where enthusiastic implementation of safeguards might threaten important contracts.

In 1981, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission told the Senate it was no longer confident that the IAEA could detect the misuse of nuclear materials.

© Other proliferation prevention measures

Another set of safeguards, preventive in nature, were drawn up in 1977 by the major exporters of nuclear technology (the so-called ‘London Club’). They consist principally of a trigger-list of sensitive technology which the firms concerned undertake not to supply to unsuitable governments, particularly those wl10 have not signed the NPT.

These regulations have had some effect and certain questionable contracts have been refused, but the system is voluntary and is constantly under commercial pressure. Several non-nuclear states. with ambiguous intentions,. such as Pakistan, Brazil and Argentina, have been given help.

US President Carter imposed unilateral restrictions on nuclear exports through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (1978): this was helpful but imperfect. He also initiated a major study of the nuclear fuel cycle and associated proliferation risks (called INFCE). The final report did not identify any proliferation-proof technologies and indeed confirmed the opinion of several previous studies, that preventing proliferation from nuclear power is primarily a political problem for which ultimately no technical fix exists.

SANA Briefing 14

Scientists Against Nuclear Arms 112 Newport Road, New Bradwell, Milton Keynes, England MKI30AA

Three case studies


India exploded a nuclear device in 1974 with plutonium produced in a small Canadian.research reactor, which Canada supplied in 1960. The heavy water was supplied by the U.S. There were no safeguards on the reactor.

Two U.S. reactors fuelled by enriched uranium started up in 1969. A 30 year fuel supply was included in the deal.

India completed a second larger CANDU in the early 1970s. Canadian cooperation on third reactor ended in May 1974, but the reactor was Completed by India in 1981. .’

Four additional large reactors based on the CANDU design are under construction. Heavy water plants are also being built.

India has two plutonium reprocessing facilities (with a total capacity of 175 tons per year), two fuel fabrication plants, one uranium enrichment centre and one uranium mine (with an output of 200 tons per year).

India refused to sign the nonproliferation treaty but allows IABA inspections at selected facilities. India has purchased heavy water from Soviet Union.


Argentina bought a large CANDU in 1976, which started up in 1983. Canada lost a minimum of $130 million on the sale. Argentina’s first reactor was built in 1974 by West Germany. The deal included a pilot reprocessing plant, a second, larger reprocessing plant is under construction. Expected to be completed in 1984, it will produce enough plutonium to make 10 bombs per year.

West Germany won the bid to build a third reactor in 1979, beating out Canada. The deal included a Swiss heavy water plant. Later the Soviet Union agreed to supply heavy water and enriched uranium which the U.S. had supplied in the past. The Soviet Union has also built a fuel rod plant near Buenos Aires.

Argentina refuses to sign the NPT, but allows limited IAEA inspections of selected facilities. Argentina also insists on its right to proceed with ‘peaceful nuclear explosions.’ “

Several large uranium mines are under development. Argentina has also signed nuclear co-operation agreements with India (one week before the 1974 explosion), Israel, Libya and Brazil (none are full NPT members).


Pakistan has a 137 Mw CANDU reactor which began operating in 1971. After the 1974 India explosion, Canada pressured Pakistan to accept safeguards on its reactor. Pakistan refused. Canada then stopped all nuclear assistance, including the flow of replacement parts, fuel rods, and equipment for a fuel fabrication plant. The reactor continues to run, however, and makes enough plutonium to make five bombs per year.

Pakistan tried to buy a massive plutonium reprocessing plant from France. The sale was cancelled in 1976 under U.S. pressure. It was later found that the French company had delivered 95 per cent of the blueprints to Pakistan anyway.

A top Pakistani nuclear scientist was convicted in absentia of stealing blueprints from a European uranium enrichment plant in the early 1970s. He now supervises an enrichment plant-under construction at Kahuta.

Pakistan has purchased large amounts of uranium from Niger, which is ‘laundered’ through Libya. Much of Pakistan’s weapons programme has been bankrolled by Libya’s Colonel Quadaffi.

Pakistan has obtained uranium enrichment components through an industrial espionage network which operated in Britain, West Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, the U.S. and Canada.

Pakistan refused to sign the NPT but allows restricted IAEA inspections at the CANDU reactor.

Pakistan has a pilot uranium enrichment plant, one uranium refinery, plutonium separation labs, and one heavy water plant.

Excerpted from The Nuclear Free Press 21, Spring 1984.