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Thursday, September 2, 1999

CONTACT: Steven Dolley


Japan and Australia Mislead the Public
About "Reactor-Grade" Plutonium, NCI Contends

Washington--A nuclear-fuel shipment, bound for Japan and currently in the vicinity of the Australian coast, contains about a half a ton of plutonium that can be made into effective, high-yield nuclear bombs, according to the Nuclear Control Institute. NCI is an independent research and advocacy center specializing in problems of nuclear proliferation.

The shipment of plutonium-uranium, "mixed-oxide" fuel (MOX) is the first of dozens scheduled to sail from France and Great Britain to Japan over the next decade. The shipments have sparked protest by numerous en-route nations because of Japan's refusal to consult with them about the shipment's route, emergency-response measures, or financial-liability arrangements in case of accident.

The nuclear industry and bureaucracy in Australia has launched a media campaign intended to obscure the proliferation risks of MOX, according to NCI. The Australian Uranium Information Center, an industry group, states inaccurately that the "reactor-grade" plutonium in the MOX fuel could not be used to make nuclear bombs. NCI recently learned that the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO), a government agency, is finalizing a document stating that "reactor-grade plutonium contains a large proportion of isotopes which create serious technical difficulties for weapons use," and otherwise downplaying the proliferation risks of MOX. Australian uranium is used as fuel in many of the world's nuclear-power reactors, where plutonium is created by nuclear fission.

"The plutonium lobby wants to create confusion over whether reactor-grade plutonium, if extracted from MOX, can actually be used to make bombs, but that question was settled long ago," said Paul Leventhal, NCI President. "Nuclear-weapon designers from the United States, Great Britain and Russia agree it can be done. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards system treats virtually all isotopes of plutonium as 'direct-use material,' suitable for bombs. Only the plutonium industry and its bureaucratic boosters in Europe, Japan and Australia claim otherwise, and they don't provide a shred of evidence to contradict the weapons designers."

MOX supporters have claimed that, even if reactor-grade plutonium could theoretically be used in bombs, its higher levels of heat and spontaneous neutron generation make it nearly impossible to develop effective, reliable weapons with large explosive yields. However, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded in its 1997 non-proliferation assessment of MOX fuel that

At the lowest level of sophistication, a potential proliferating state or subnational group using designs and technologies no more sophisticated than those used in first-generation nuclear weapons could build a nuclear weapon from reactor-grade plutonium that would have an assured, reliable yield of one or a few kilotons (and a probable yield significantly higher than that)....Proliferating states using designs of intermediate sophistication could produce weapons with assured yields substantially higher than the kiloton-range...In short, reactor-grade plutonium is weapons-usable, whether by unsophisticated proliferators or by advanced nuclear weapon states. Theft of separated plutonium, whether weapons-grade or reactor-grade, would pose a grave security risk.

The IAEA Department of Safeguards stated that "even highly burned reactor-grade plutonium can be used for the manufacture of nuclear weapons capable of very substantial explosive yields."

In fact, NCI pointed out, reactor-grade plutonium could be even more desirable than weapon-grade plutonium as a bomb material for terrorist or other sub-national groups. Reactor-grade plutonium eliminates the need for them to use a neutron initiator in the bomb, and thereby considerably simplifies the design and production of a first-generation atomic bomb.

"Japan's neighbors should not buy the industry's propaganda campaign," Leventhal said. "They should be aware that the plutonium in the MOX shipment could be used to make dozens of bombs. Japan's long-term plan to acquire more weapon-usable plutonium than is currently in the arsenals of the nuclear weapons states can only promote instability in Northeast Asia and encourage other nations in the region to follow suit."

For more information on the MOX shipment and Japan's plutonium program, visit the NCI website at

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