Recipe for nuclear terrorism

US academic claims it is possible to make a powerful but crude bomb using reactor-grade plutonium

Terrorists could easily make a nuclear weapon with a third of the power of the Hiroshima bomb from plutonium produced by civil nuclear reactors – such as that stored at Sellafield – according to a leading US academic.

The disclosure is being made today in a House of Commons conference staged by David Chaytor, Labour MP for Bury North, and anti-nuclear group Wise-Paris, to publicise a report highlighting the dangers of converting plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for use in conventional nuclear power stations.

Matthew Bunn, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences panel on plutonium disposition that was influential in forming US policy, is blunt about the threat in a paper he contributes to the report.

‘All separated plutonium, whether reactor-grade or weapon-grade, poses serious proliferation risk,’ he says.

‘For an unsophisticated proliferator, making a crude bomb with a reliable, assured yield of a kiloton or more – and hence a destructive radius about one-third to one-half that of the Hiroshima bomb – from reactor-grade plutonium would require no more sophistication than making a bomb from weapons-grade plutonium.’

Bunn quotes a Russian weapons designer he met in the course of the panel’s deliberations who said it would actually be easier to make a weapon from reactor-grade material because no neutron generator would be required.

The Wise report says MOX manufacture should stop because the volume of material going through large reprocessing plants means they would not be able to account for losses of enough plutonium to make 10 crude bombs.

It also says: ‘It is chemically of no difficulty to extract plutonium from fresh MOX fuel.’

British Nuclear Fuels, whose £300m MOX manufacturing plant at Sellafield is due to come on stream by early 1999, disputed this claim.A spokesman said: ‘You would certainly need to construct a reprocessing plant to do it.’