Nuclear Weapon Proliferation: A Threat of Immeasurable Proportion

Written by Paul Evancoe For

As rogue nations like Iran, Myanmar and North Korea proceed in their nuclear weapon development quest, the threat of terrorists acquiring and using a nuclear weapon against us increases exponentially. We know that developing a nuclear weapon capability requires technical expertise, material resources and money. Historically, few nations have had sufficient quantities of all three. Those nations that do possess a nuclear capability compose the elite “Nuclear Club” leaving the rest to rely upon conventional weapons for defense, or offense – depending upon the situation.

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The Nuclear Club

The current world of nuclear weapon states fall into two categories – those who have declared their nuclear weapon capability and those who proliferate them without admitting it. The declared nuclear weapon states are China, Russia, France, Great Britain, and the United States. The proliferate nuclear weapon states who are known to currently possess nuclear weapons are India, Israel, and Pakistan. Those states known to be actively seeking and/or developing nuclear weapons are Iran, Myanmar, and North Korea. There are also a number of states that have, for a variety of reasons, aborted their weapon programs. They are Iraq, Libya, Brazil, Taiwan, Argentina, South Africa, and South Korea.

Proliferation of nuclear weapons technology and the special nuclear material required to build a nuclear weapon has remained a top national security concern for the United States and the NATO allies. The decade following the end of the Cold War was a tenuous time for the U.S. and its allies. While the Former Soviet Union (FSU) had its own proliferation controls, Russia’s ability to maintain effective proliferation control over FSU emergent nations was highly questionable. The potential that a former Soviet weapon could be sold on the black market was escalated by the West’s politically correct agendas of openness, technology transfer, and declassification. These sources fueled by the U.S. government’s feverous support of the global information highway may have given rise to previously unthinkable weapons of mass destruction becoming available to terrorists and rogue nations.

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Ever since the Manhattan Project during WW-II the prevention of illegally acquired highly enriched uranium, plutonium, and associated nuclear weapon technology has topped the list of U.S. National Security issues. The demise of the Soviet Union and the breakup of its former empire into independent states that are more or less aligned with the world community has caused continuing concern over the ability, and in some cases desire, to maintain tight control over former Soviet nuclear stockpile weapons and the special nuclear materials (SNM) and precursor components required to build nuclear weapons.

Uranium and Plutonium Differ

Great attention has been paid to the proliferation of SNM, defined as uranium and plutonium enriched in the isotope uranium 235 or plutonium 239. But what is the difference between uranium and plutonium weapons and why are these two particular isotopes so important?

Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element whose principal isotopes are uranium 235 and uranium 238. Although natural uranium appears in a mixture of colors from black through yellow and green, in its metallic state, it is a hard, silvery-white, shiny metallic substance that somewhat resembles cast aluminum. In its various compounds, and little understood by the public, uranium has many industrial uses including staining glass, glazing ceramics, photographic processes and aircraft ballast to name a few.

The primary use for uranium, however, is as a source fuel for nuclear power reactors and for plutonium production. Natural uranium is also used as feed material for the gaseous diffusion isotope separation process, a chemical means of separating uranium 235 from uranium 238. It is important to note that this separation process is an extremely sophisticated chemical process that requires dedicated state-of-the-art processing facilities and unique chemicals. Uranium 235 has both reactor and weapon application when enriched to a purity of about 93.5 percent although any enrichment above 20 percent is considered weapon grade.

Uranium 235 is the only naturally occurring “fissile” isotope contained in natural uranium comprising no more than 0.7 percent. The term “fissile” means that when the uranium 235 atom absorbs an additional neutron it splits, releasing tremendous energy. Uranium 238 comprises the other 99.3 percent of natural uranium and is a “fertile” isotope. Fertile isotopes differ from fissile isotopes because they capture the neutron and transform into plutonium 239 becoming fissile. This nuclear process is exactly how plutonium 239 is bred in an operating nuclear power reactor.

By comparison, plutonium is a heavy, metallic, man-made fissile isotope produced (bred) in a nuclear power reactor by neutron capture in uranium 238. Plutonium 239 is primarily used in the core of nuclear weapons but can also be used for reactor fuel. Reactor grade plutonium has a high plutonium 240 content, usually in the range of 15-20 percent, but can be substituted for the more pure weapon grade plutonium in weapons where a decreased yield (less powerful detonation) is acceptable. Plutonium 240 also has the undesirable characteristic of having a high rate of spontaneous fission making it far less stable than plutonium 239. This inherent instability greatly increases the chance of pre-initiation resulting in unintended detonation when used in nuclear explosive devices. Correspondingly, weapon grade plutonium usually contains no more than 7 percent plutonium 240 to maintain both high yield detonation characteristics and an acceptable margin of safety from spontaneous, unintended detonation.

Verification Variables

Weapon grade plutonium is created through dedicated reactor operation cycles and must be removed from the reactor following creation to maintain purity. Commercial applications of plutonium vary from radionuclide batteries for pacemakers to a power source for satellites and planetary rovers. Unlike uranium, plutonium is a “bone-seeking” radiation hazard that can be lethal to most living things depending on the amount taken internally. This is precisely why nuclear fallout and nuclear waste product disposal are such great concerns to public health. Once internalized through the food supply, human health as well as other life is at risk.

The difference between uranium and plutonium weapons is not in the classically understood end result of a fissile yield. Rather, it is in the distinctly different facilities required to process and enrich, or breed the fissile weapon grade material used in the weapon. Uranium 235 is naturally occurring and is derived through a chemical separation process while Plutonium is created (“bred”) in a nuclear reactor. It is precisely these processes, related technical equipment and facilities that the intelligence analysts look for when trying to evaluate the capability of potential adversaries to develop nuclear weapons.

Reactor cycles dedicated to breeding weapon grade plutonium leave distinctive radiological signatures that can be detected through proper diagnostic comparison of reactor operations and the isotope content of the fuel rods. Fuel burn rate records should be consistent with the isotope content in the fuel at any period of inspection. Iran’s and North Korea’s refusal to allow international inspectors access to their reactor operation records and samples of spent fuel leads most to believe that Iran and North Korea are breeding weapon grade plutonium through dedicated reactor operations.

There are several other variables involved that can make verification extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible. The type of reactor is important. For example, United States reactor designs require reactor shutdown to refuel or replace fuel rods. This provides both a great margin of safety and an unmistakable reactor power signature that is easily detectable. On the other hand, Russian, and North Korean reactors do not generally require shutdown to change out fuel rods. Therefore, by design, these reactors do not provide the same telltale power signature making verification difficult without their cooperation. This may be the driving reason why the U.S. offered North Korea U.S. reactor design technology in exchange for North Korea allowing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection. Unfortunately, North Korea declined the offer.

Today’s Threat

No matter what country, friend or foe, special nuclear material, as well as the required processing and weapon manufacturing facilities have historically received the highest national-level security attention. In view of the relative few nations that exclusively possess a nuclear capability compared to those who desire to acquire such a capability, it has always been a case of the “haves” verses the “have nots.” The ground truth is the safe guards and security that has been rigorously applied to the nuclear program, across the international spectrum of research, development, stockpile maintenance and support, has largely worked. Until the post-Cold War era, proliferation of nuclear weapons, thanks to both Russia and the United States, had remained in check. However, today there are new concerns resulting from radical Islam’s still evolving new world order and the unknown intentions of some of the emerging nations. The new potential threat may not focus on weapon development as it has in the past. Today’s nuclear proliferation threat may include a wide range of non-traditional elements so abstract that intelligence analysts may simply not recognize the indicators.

A little considered, yet major “wild card” in this complex problem of proliferation involves people. There are thousands of technically trained and experienced persons with detailed knowledge of, and access to, former Warsaw Pact forces weapon development facilities, stockpiles and maintenance depots. The potential for some of these people to “sell out” to the black market, or go to work for the highest bidder in a renegade country, is a threat of immeasurable heights, and it is believed that some have. This makes proliferation even more difficult to control since the inventory of hardware and materials is significantly different than the inventory of the depth of knowledge and understanding that people possess. In view of difficult economic conditions throughout most of the Former Soviet Union, coupled with the Islamic Revolution throughout the Middle East and Africa, the risk of selling weapon development intellectual knowledge on the black market runs extremely high.

Additional proliferation stemming from nuclear weapon development by Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, and even Pakistan, heightens concerns that such weapon programs, lacking the rational controls brought on by an understanding of World Community deterrence, could be sold or ransomed for purposes other than that pertaining to their individual national security. Although there can be little argument over the technical sophistication required to build nuclear weapons, or that the nuclear threat has correctly been the World’s dominant focus over the past six decades, it may now have several rivals that require equal attention.

Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq demonstrated that a nation with the willingness and resources to send students abroad for scientific and engineering training in dual-use technologies may develop extremely sophisticated, indigenous capabilities for high tech weapons and their delivery systems. The possibility that a rogue nation will acquire new and more sophisticated technology in this manner leading to weapons of mass destruction is real. The issue is how those dual-use technologies will be applied and to what kind of weapon.

Smuggling Nuclear Material

Two little publicized events occurred in Europe during 1992 that involved the theft and sale of special nuclear materials (SNM). They were likewise the first ever cases that involved the attempted sale of a measurable quantity of plutonium.

The first incident involved enriched uranium reactor fuel pellets stolen in Romania and offered for sale on the black market. These pellets were only enriched 3-5% and were “fresh” fuel having never been used in a reactor. The level of enrichment was far below weapon grade requirements and therefore useless unless further enriched. If used as reactor fuel these pellets could have possibly been made into weapon grade plutonium, but the quantity was insufficient.

The only possible weapon application for this type of low grade SNM could be for use in a “low tech” RDD, short for Radiological Dispersal Device, that causes low level contamination by simply spreading radioactive material over a localized area. An RDD’s construction utilizes a conventional explosive surrounded by radioactive material and any radioactive material will work. When exploded, the radioactive material is pulverized and carried outward by the force of the blast, spreading it as radioactive particulate upon the surface of the blast radius.

It is important to understand that an RDD does not produce a nuclear yield associated with an atomic bomb. There is no mushroom cloud, searing heat, or searing release of lethal gamma radiation. Unless this low level radiation particulate is taken internally, the radioactive material is of little danger to human health or consequence to the environment. The detonation of such a device would no doubt provoke a media feeding frenzy and result in undesirable local contamination, but it would not cause apocalyptic mass destruction of life and property. The RDD, however, should not be discounted as inconsequential. It is indeed a means to discretely contaminate a selected target and requires only a radioactive source material (not necessarily Special Nuclear Material) and rudimentary explosives technology to construct and employ. The RDD may likely debut as the terrorist’s weapon of choice during this decade.

The second incident involved a black market offer to sell 80 kilograms of plutonium 239 contained within numerous metal disks. Not long after the theft, one crate, reportedly containing 140 of these plutonium disks, was recovered by European authorities. The sellers initially claimed to have 39 more crates. If true, (and it likely is) that would mean 5,460 disks are still missing. This number may sound significant but it translates to an insignificant quantity (in grams) of SNM that is not weapon useable. In fact, the disks are believed to be the same as those used in Russian military chemical warfare (CW) detectors. As with the first incident, an RDD could potentially be constructed employing the discs as a radiological contaminant, but surely not an atomic bomb.

In a dramatic increase, eight more incidents of nuclear materials smuggling occurred from May through August, 1994, capturing international media attention. Although the May 10 incident was inaccurately reported as the first known case of its kind, six grams of weapon grade plutonium was recovered by authorities in Tengen, Germany. The amount recovered was reportedly a test sample of a significantly greater quantity, possibly as much as 150 kilos, that may still be hidden somewhere in Europe. This plutonium is believed to have been smuggled from former Soviet secret nuclear weapon facilities to be sold on the black market.

In related incidents that same year, additional recoveries of small quantities of various nuclear material were reported by summer’s end all believed to be smuggled from Russia. International media experts erroneously proclaimed that a fissile nuclear weapon could be built from the nuclear material recovered. This of course gained the attention of politicians who incorporated the hype into their various agendas. In truth most of the recovered material was not weapon grade and that which was lacked sufficient quantity to be of value for weapon use. While the precise threshold quantity remains classified, a mass of 6-8 kilograms of weapon grade plutonium or a larger amount of highly enriched uranium 235 is hypothetically sufficient to make a nuclear explosive. But, if there is indeed an additional quantity of SNM awaiting a buyer, a considerable threat exists. Without equal, the European continent is most vulnerable to nuclear terrorism and may unknowingly already be at great risk.

The lesson that can be taken from these incidents is that since 1966 when such cases began being investigated, evaluated, and documented, 99 percent of all cases proved to be scams involving bogus material but today they number in the hundreds. Proliferation controls have largely worked. The integrity of the former Soviet military and science communities must be recognized as effectively contributing to the disallowance of such an occurrence. Things have clearly changed with the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union. We now face the Islamic Revolution and its fanaticism with goals of world domination that are not politically based.

A New Playing Field Skewed by Politics and Islamist Fanaticism

Today’s proliferation concerns range a broad spectrum of issues that involve radical states with zealot agendas, such as Iran and North Korea, to dedicated terrorist organizations like Hamas that continue to escalate their violent campaigns against ethnic and political foes with little regard to innocent bystanders or collateral damage. It is these miscreant states and knavish groups that cause many a sleepless night for the analysts who monitor them and attempt to assess their activities. Proliferation no longer involves just the “haves” and the “have nots.”

On September 27, 1993 the White House, Office of the Press Secretary, unveiled the Clinton non-proliferation and export control policy in an attempt to establish a historically significant framework to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the missiles that deliver them. It remains in effect today. In this framework President Clinton outlined three major principles to guide U.S. non-proliferation and export control policy: (1) Make non-proliferation an integral element of U.S. foreign relations; (2) Seek expanded trade and technology exchange with nations, including former adversaries, that abide by global non-proliferation norms, and; (3) Build a new consensus to promote effective non-proliferation efforts while integrating economic goals.

In this policy statement Clinton reaffirmed U.S. support for a strong, effective non-proliferation regime and provided brief descriptions of the policy’s key elements. These elements focus on: Control and security of fissile material; Application of dual-use technology export controls; Strong support for the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995 and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s efforts to detect clandestine nuclear activities; Promotion of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) guidelines as a global combat missile non-proliferation norm, and; To make special efforts to address the proliferation threat in regions of tension such as the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Simply stated the current U.S. non-proliferation policy appears to be enigmatically linked to the economic concerns of export controls. Phrases used in the policy such as, “The United States will harmonize domestic and multilateral controls to the greatest extent possible,” seem to somehow be misaligned with the realities of the potential threat of a weapon, or weapon development technology, falling into the wrong hands. This policy suggests that non-proliferation controls will only be as serious as the U.S. export market will economically bear.

Weapon Development Capability Not Necessary

In the event that state control of a nuclear weapon is lost, as in theft, disappearance, or put into the hands of terrorists, the weapon is then defined as an improvised nuclear device (IND). An IND significantly differs from a radiological dispersion device (RDD) because an IND has the potential to “yield” as a stockpile design nuclear weapon. An IND has a working “physics package” containing the fissile plutonium or uranium pit surrounded by the explosives to detonate a “yielding” nuclear explosion. All that may be required to render an IND operable is a fire set modification or, perhaps nothing at all.

If, for example, a North Korean or Iranian stockpile weapon was acquired by terrorists and exploded in an act of terror, it would be obvious that it is no longer necessary for a terrorist organization to possess the level of indigenous technology to develop a weapon. The only things required would be the money to buy a weapon and the will to use it. Can anyone seriously believe that if the Islamists who flew the airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11 would have had access to nuclear weapons that they would have used them against us rather than airliners?

The reality of the unfolding new world order dictates that it is not a matter of if terrorists will use nuclear weapons against us, but rather when it will happen. It can be argued that the odds of such an event occurring are probably low but the consequences are unarguably high. It is precisely the RDD and IND threat that international treaties and lofty sounding policies cannot prevent. And, it may prove to be the Achilles Heel of otherwise diligent national and international non-proliferation efforts. Sleep well.

Paul Evancoe is a novelist and freelance writer. His action novels “Own the Night,” “Violent Peace” and “Poison Promise” deal with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and are available at




4 Responses to “Nuclear Weapon Proliferation: A Threat of Immeasurable Proportion”

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military dot image arin    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Another great look into what most of us don’t fully understand. Thanks Paul!

military dot image Tom Hastings    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Great article! This piece is very informative and serves as an excellent overview of the facts about all things radiological. Thanks for your clear explanations.

Tom Hastings

military dot image John Suit    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0


Another great write-up. That is SCARY stuff!

military dot image Mack    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

As usual, you translate complex issues into crisp, easily grasped arguments. Well done, sir! A very scary time to live in the Western world.

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