Energy Tradeoffs

Kurt Zenz House lays out the reasons to both laud France’s insight 30 years ago to go nuclear, as well as be concerned:

So today, France looks rather smart. It acted decisively in the 1970s to limit its dependence on fossil fuels, and now it’s better positioned than any other non-oil-exporting power to deal with increasing fuel costs and global warming. Indeed, as the world tries to contain carbon dioxide emissions, France is likely to benefit enormously from its nuclear commitment because other countries will purchase French nuclear technology and expertise. The financial markets have taken all of this into account as AREVA’s market valuation has appreciated 300 percent in the last four years.

The catch is that France now produces enough plutonium in their civilian nuclear power activities to make about 10 nuclear bombs per week. This plutonium is transported 1,000 kilometers every week in armed convoys across the country from the reprocessing facility to the fuel-fabrication facility. That material is vulnerable to theft and could be used by terrorists to vaporize a small city.


  1. LP –

    Good question. The answer is basically “yes and no”. To make weapons-grade plutonium, you only leave the fuel in the reactor for a little while to make plutonium that is predominantly pu-239. Leave it in longer, and you get lots more of the other isotopes of plutonium, which mean it is less useful for making a bomb. But not useless.

    US weaponeers conducted a test in the early 1960s that demonstrated you could make a serviceable nuke with reactor-grade plutonium.


  2. It’s not as if any of this were a secret. The tradeoff is obvious and was the reason that the US (when Carter was Pres, as I recall) did not go for reprocessing. The problem, of course is that you are left with the choice of STILL transporting the stuff for burial (Yucca Mtn) or leaving it in pools at the reactor sites.

    IEHO, you are better off reprocessing which is more efficient and reduces the volume that needs to be disposed of. Mounting an attact on a transport column would require assembling a serious army.

  3. Yes, but the North Koreans conducted a test in 2006 that showed that non-US weaponeers trying to build a plutonium bomb- even with fairly high grade Pu- were liable to stuff it up.

    I honestly have no idea what the isotopic composition of French waste is. They may blend light for their own weapons program, or they may blend heavy for anti-proliferation.

    Of course the number of fatalities from a nuclear terrorist strike would still probably be smaller than the number of people who die from respiratory ailments in polluted cities each year

  4. I think the answer to the Lab Lemming’s question is yes. There probably are exceptions. As I recall they also reprocess the fuel rods from Japan, and I assume that the contract says that none of the Pu from that can be used in bombs.

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