Quick and Secret Construction of Plutonium Reprocessing Plants:

A Way to Nuclear Weapons Proliferation?

EMD-78-104: Published: Oct 6, 1978. Publicly Released: Oct 6, 1978.

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There has been much concern that nations with commercial nuclear powerplants but not possessing nuclear weapons might attempt to divert the plutonium contained in the spent fuel discharged from their power plants to make nuclear weapons. Concerns were increased by an Oak Ridge National Laboratory memorandum dated August 30, 1977, which provided a conceptual design for a simple and quick plant for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

The major issue raised by the memorandum was whether the reprocessing plant could be built and operated by nonnuclear-weapons nations without time constraints, quickly, and secretly. Without time constraints, many of these nations have, or could acquire, the technical capability to build and operate such plants. There was a wide divergence of opinion on how quickly such a plant could be built and placed into operation. The memorandum's estimate of 4 to 6 months, although not highly probable, is credible under some circumstances. GAO had limited access to information relating to the secrecy issue. Agencies involved believed that development and operation of a reprocessing plant would involve a substantial risk of detection. GAO noted, however, that there are limitations in the scope and applicability of detection activities. The possibility of quick construction of secret reprocessing plants is not a significant factor in deciding whether to allow reprocessing of spent fuel; the primary focus of U.S. policy is on the spread of legitimate reprocessing plants. However, the memorandum reemphasized the importance of deterring nonnuclear-weapons nations from diverting spent fuel.

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