Nuclear Terrorism

Expert perspectives on nuclear terrorism issues, including reprocessing, nonproliferation, and the security risks posed by fissile materials.


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There are Faster, Cheaper, Safer and More Reliable Alternatives to the Energy Department’s Proposed Multibillion Dollar Test Reactor

, Acting Director, Nuclear Safety Project; Senior Scientist, Global Security Program

Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry recently announced the launch of the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) project, flagging it as one of the department’s top priorities. The project, which would be the first new DOE test reactor in decades, would differ from the DOE’s operating test reactors because it would be cooled by liquid sodium instead of water, enabling it to produce large numbers of “fast” neutrons. The DOE says that such a facility is needed to develop new reactors that use fast neutrons to generate electricity. US nuclear plants today are light-water reactors, which use slow (“thermal”) neutrons.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) questions the need for a dedicated fast neutron test reactor and, more generally, has serious concerns about fast reactor safety and security, detailed in a critique it released last year. Fast reactors pose nuclear proliferation and terrorism risks in part because they commonly use fuels containing plutonium, a nuclear weapon-usable material. Most fast reactor concepts also involve reprocessing of their spent fuel, which separates plutonium in a form that is vulnerable to theft. Read more >

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The Versatile Test Reactor Debate: Round 2

, Acting Director, Nuclear Safety Project; Senior Scientist, Global Security Program

In mid-February, the House of Representatives passed the “Nuclear Energy Research Infrastructure Act of 2017” (H.R. 4378). It authorizes the secretary of energy to spend nearly $2 billion to build and begin operating a facility called a “versatile, reactor-based fast neutron source” by the end of 2025 “to the maximum extent practicable.” The purpose of the facility would be to provide an intense source of fast neutrons that could be used by startup companies developing fast reactors for power production. Current US power and test reactors do not generate large quantities of fast neutrons.

However, the facility itself would be a fairly large, experimental fast neutron reactor, likely fueled with weapon-usable plutonium, and would pose significant security and safety risks. H.R. 4378 authorizes the Department of Energy (DOE) to construct this facility, now known as the “Versatile Test Reactor” (VTR), without really knowing how much it would cost or how long it would take, let alone whether there was a significant need for it in the first place. In fact, at the time of the bill’s passage in the House, the DOE had not even begun to conduct such an analysis. This is bad public policy. Read more >

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Another Nail in the Coffin of the Misguided MOX Program

, Acting Director, Nuclear Safety Project; Senior Scientist, Global Security Program

In the Fiscal Year 2018 omnibus spending bill passed by the House of Representatives yesterday and the Senate today, Congress is taking an encouraging step toward terminating the wasteful and dangerous Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Plant, under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The MOX plant, if completed, would be used to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program by turning it into fuel for nuclear reactors. However, the project is decades behind schedule and is now expected to cost upwards of $50 billion—ten times the original estimate. Read more >

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The “Versatile Fast Neutron Source”: A Misguided Nuclear Reactor Project

, Acting Director, Nuclear Safety Project; Senior Scientist, Global Security Program

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) supports a moderate level of Department of Energy (DOE) research funding to make nuclear power safer and more secure—for example the agency’s program to develop accident tolerant fuels for nuclear reactors. Conversely, UCS does not support programs that not only would cost a lot of money, but also could make nuclear power more dangerous and less secure. That’s why the organization is troubled by a bill that was passed by the House of Representatives on February 13. Read more >

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The Pyroprocessing Files

, Acting Director, Nuclear Safety Project; Senior Scientist, Global Security Program

The article by Ralph Vartabedian in the Los Angeles Times highlights the failure of the Department of Energy’s decades-long effort to chemically process a stockpile of spent nuclear fuel at Idaho National Laboratory, ostensibly to convert the waste to forms that would be safer for disposal in a geologic repository. A secondary goal was to demonstrate the viability of a new type of processing spent fuel—so-called pyroprocessing. Instead, it has demonstrated the numerous shortcomings of this technology. Read more >

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