]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]  THE PLUTONIUM OBSESSION  [[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[ 

     I hope you have come from the floor below after reading the
reasons why reactor-grade plutonium cannot be used for bombs. If not,
please go downstairs to read the reasons first. 
     It follows from what we have learned downstairs that "the pluto-
nium economy" is a buzzword meant to intimidate and to dupe people
into abandoning the safest and environmentally most benign type of
electric power.
     But there is a second point: anyone who tries to scare you with
plutonium bombs is giving a demonstration of his ignorance, more
specifically, his plutonium obsession. Who says a nuclear bomb must be
made of plutonium? The Hiroshima bomb wasn't: It was made of highly
enriched uranium.
     Plutonium never was the only danger, and it is now the least
likely candidate for terrorist bombs. (It is still used as the nuclear
trigger for H-bombs by the military.)
     More than 99% of the uranium in natural ore is the U 238 isotope;
only 0.7% is the fissile U 235. For (US) reactors that 0.7% must be
raised, or "enriched" to about 3.5%, which in itself shows why a power
reactor cannot explode: for bombs the uranium must be enriched to well
over 90%.
     There are several ways to achieve enrichment. They must all use
some physical principle: chemistry, or at any rate chemistry alone, is
of no use, because one has to separate two isotopes (U 235 and U 238)
which are chemically identical.
     Since the US was first, it is stuck with the investment in the
enrichment plants for the Manhattan Project: diffusion, which is
bulky, slow, and energy intensive. The Europeans are now using a more
efficient process: the centrifuge, which separates the two by weight,
in principle like milk and cream. (In the 1940's, there were no
materials to withstand the high speeds of rotation needed for uranium
     But there are other methods. There is the jet-stream deflection
method used in South Africa and sold by West Germany to Brazil. It is
expensive and inefficient, but unsophisticated -- just the thing for,
say, Quaddafi of Libya.
     Then there are small super-centrifuges, getting ever more effi-
cient and ever smaller -- just the thing for privacy.
     And then there is enrichment by use of lasers to "excite" only
one of the two isotopes by a quantum-mechanical principle. It cer-
tainly already exists in the labs, and may well exist in production
behind closed doors. Highly efficient, and presumably getting smaller
in physical size.
     With a menu like this for bombs by uranium enrichment, what inept
terrorist would go for plutonium?
     The American Friends' Service Committee would. Their 4-page come-
on "Power Plants & Weapons" by their Field Secretary Jerry Elmer gives
all the usual scares and falsehoods about the plutonium "connection;"
but then on the fourth page he describes how easy it will soon be to
use uranium laser enrichment "in addition" -- not "in refutation" of
his preceding three pages, now irrelevant as well as false.
     Which makes me think that your Friends of the Service Committee
are not, after all, in error.
     It makes me think that your Friends are deliberately lying.

                         *  *  *

[Note added in March 1988: Elmer's booklet is now forgotten, but the
technical points above hold unchanged. This month it was reported that
Brazil has a "parallel" nuclear program using centrifugal enrichment in
addition to the inefficient jet process.]

Return to the ground floor of this tower
Return to the Main Courtyard
Return to Fort Freedom's home page