Friday, October 14, 2005

Looking Back at ABC News and "Loose Nukes" with Dr. Andrew Karam (Part III)

Here at NEI, one aspect of last night's story that we found particularly egregious was the multiple references to the possibility that highly enriched uranium might be stolen for use in a bomb. But what ABC News didn't provide were the details of exactly what would be involved in an operation to do just that. But Dr. Karam did:

To me, a more serious concern would be the theft of highly-enriched reactor fuel for use in making nuclear weapons, as suggested a few times. Let's face it - if a terrorist is going to steal the fuel and dissolve it to remove the fission products to make a dirty bomb, they may as well also remove the uranium to make a nuclear weapon! But let's think about this a little. The fuel elements are at the bottom of a 15-20 foot swimming pool. To remove them, terrorists would have to have scuba gear (or very good lungs), a crane or other lifting gear, and a way to move the fuel elements from the reactor building into their truck. All possible, but time-consuming.

They would need to disassemble the reactor core, unless they were going to lift it out whole - either will take time because of the size and awkwardness of the task. The bottom line is that nobody is going to break in at night and steal a reactor core overnight. A long weekend might suffice, but would require being undetected. Certainly it can be done, but would be difficult to pull off, and impossible to do so undected. And, once obtained, terrorists would have to find a way to hide out long enough to dissolve the fuel, remove the uranium, purify the uranium oxide into uranium metal, and machine the metal into bombs.

The other thing is that, once the fuel were stolen, the terrorists would have to do this work under tremendous time constraints because the entire national law enforcement and military establishments would be looking for them with some fairly sophisticated equipment. Making a gun-type nuclear device is not difficult, but it would take time to let the fuel "cool", and to do everything I mentioned above. Not impossible, but not a simple matter, and plenty of room to get caught.
Again, no simple feat. But after watching the ABC report, you'd get the impression that it was as easy as shoplifting a Snickers from a candy store.

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