A Little Help Removing The Last Leg

David Kurtz over at Talking Points Memo points out the last leg that the Iran War Drum Beaters has is reflected in a Fred Thompson Red State piece that claims that fuel enrichment for nuclear power is just a hop skip and a jump away from building bombs.

Kurtz correctly follows his nose in sniffing out the ridiculousness of this argument, but I figured I’d give just a little bit of help with my own barely above layman expertise on the matter.

As you may or may not know, my occupation in the military was Naval Nuclear Propulsion, and so when it comes to nuclear weapons I still consider myself a layman, but I have at least a little more knowledge than the average person on all things nuclear (And really, Hollywood?  You need to cut about 90% of your dramatic guess out).

There are two specific aspects that should be taken into account when we talk about the differences between nuclear fuel, and nuclear weapons.  Enrichment level, and geometry.

When we talk about geometry, we talk about the actual physical shape of the nuclear material and the effect that the shape has on its radioactivity.  That’s to say, have you ever heard of a nuclear reactor blowing up?  Technically, no.

Sure there are a few instances in history where it may seem like that, like Three Mile Island, but those cases were not actually nuclear detonations, but instead steam ruptures.  You see, the geometry for nuclear reactors is all wrong and does not accomodate nuclear detonation, it’s physically impossible.  But it is possible for the nuclear reactions to get out of control, thereby increasing temperature and pressure of the moderator or the coolant to such a point that it exceeds the maximum rating of the piping it is going through resulting in a steam line rupture.

Look at Chirnobyl, the most famous nuclear accident in history.  We’re talking about a hardcore melt down, radiation levels at what is called the “Elephant’s foot” are so high (or were, I don’t know what they are at this point) that if you were to run into the room, touch it, and run out, you would be dead within hours.

But Chirnobyl didn’t explode.  In fact it quite literally melted as operator error and system design flaws resulted in the phenomenon I described above where the moderator/coolant overheated to a point that couldn’t be controlled.

The other factor I mentioned was enrichment; purity.  Again, this is based on sheer memory, and I’m not going to use any numbers, but the level of purity between what is useable in a nuclear power plant and what is useable to build a bomb differs by a huge magnitude.


Fuel for nuclear power is considerably less pure than that used to make nuclear weapons, and would require significantly different, more effecient, more expensive, etc. equipment, and that’s assuming you can get weapons grade material from nuclear fuel, something I admit I don’t know.  I only have an understanding on how fuel grade material is attained and that this grade material falls woefully short of being fit for weapons production.

So yeah, I find it rather unlikely that you can jump start one program into another at the drop of hat.  Fred really ought to go back to sleep, really.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook