Didn’t know that

USS Clueless has a post on nuclear reactors and how they can be used to create weapons-grade material even if they are in a pure civilian power plant. The reason for the post was a reader email wondering if claims that the Iraqi Osirak plant, bombed by the Israelis in 1981, was incapable of producing nuclear weapons were accurate.

Although I don’t really understand the science, I knew that such claims were pure bunk. Steven den Beste explains it to us, and underscores that any nuclear power plant is inherently capable of creating material for use in nuclear weapons. It’s unavoidable.

What I didn’t know was that the Osirak plant, built with extensive help from the French in particular, wasn’t even a civilian nuclear power plant. At all. In any way. Another reader contacted SDB with the details. The Osirak reactor was what’s called a “Materials Test Reactor”. MTRs are used for research when planning and designing larger, more powerful reactors. Since Iraq was buying reactors from the French and had no intention of building its own on its own, this reason doesn’t seem to hold heavy water.

Coincidentally, MTRs also have the capability of producing precise weapons-grade material. Hmmmm.

We don’t hear much about that. I wonder why.


  1. The key issue is burn time. All U.S. power plants are badly suited to producing weapons grade plutonium. The one thing that is certain is that plutonium that has been in a reactor for a long time will be very hard and more dangerous to work with, at best, for a bomb. Basically, it isn’t worth the trouble. If you are using Plutonium, what you want is Pu239. Pu238 is ‘hot’ and likely would require active cooling in a bomb. Pu240 produces a lot of neutrons, all the time, making partial predetonation a significant issue. The way to avoid producing much Pu238, Pu240, etc. is to only leave the fuel in the reactor for a short period – say 30 days. U.S. Commercial reactors aren’t built for that. Also, it is far easier to build a small ‘research’ reactor than a big power reactor. (Chernobyl, incidentally, was a large ‘mixed use’ reactor that could be used for weapons production. A very bad design, too.) The Osirak reactor was a small research reactor that would have been great for producing weapons grade plutonium. That isn’t to say I would have been happy with them having US style commercial power reactors, they might have found ways to use them for bombs, but it would have been far harder.

  2. …because if it was widely publicised, and the outcry caused the reactors to be shut down, many cancer sufferers would be SOOL. Construction using steel would suffer, as you need radio sources for checking structural integrity. And the easiest, cheapest way of getting precisely-callibrated emitters is with an MTR, in fact, that’s the definition of an MTR, it’s a device for making precisely-callibrated radioactive materials.