Nuclear Chemistry
Nuclear Proliferation
Dr. Frank Settle

    A nation or group seeking to produce nuclear weapons must complete the following basic steps:

    • Develop a design for the weapon or obtain the design from an external source.
    • Produce fissile material for the core of the device or obtain this material from an external source. Once obtained, this material must be fabricated into the nuclear components for the weapon.
    • Fabricate or obtain from external sources the non-nuclear components of the weapon. These include high explosives and a triggering mechanism to detonate the nuclear core.
    • Verify the reliability of all components individually and as a system.
    • Assemble the components into a deliverable weapon.

    Detecting the development of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear states or rogue groups depends on information about all of these steps.

    Delivery system for a nuclear weapon
    (Courtesy of the Department of Energy)

    The major barrier to producing a nuclear device is obtaining weapons-grade uranium or plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) states that 25 kg of weapons-grade uranium (> 90% U-235) or 8 kg of plutonium are the minimum amounts required for a 20-kiloton explosion (equivalent to the Nagasaki bomb). However, a group with more sophisticated technology could build the same weapon with as little as 5 kg of weapons-grade uranium or 3 kg of plutonium.

    Uranium enrichment is a complex industrial process requiring huge facilities that house sophisticated equipment and consume large quantities of electricity. Plutonium can be produced in a nuclear reactor by irradiating natural or slightly enriched uranium fuel with neutrons. Recovery of plutonium from the spent fuel is also a complex industrial process. In general, the uranium enrichment route is considered less likely for proliferation than the plutonium option.

    To date, every nation that has developed nuclear weapons has also developed the capability for producing fissile materials. The first five nuclear weapon states (U.S., Russia, Great Britain, France and China) signed the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Since that time, India, Pakistan, and Israel have developed nuclear weapons, but are not NPT member states. It is thought that Iran, Iraq (until its liberation in2003), Libya, and North Korea are seeking nuclear weapons. Algeria, Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Romania, South Africa, and the Ukraine have all renounced their programs to develop or maintain nuclear weapons. Twenty-one countries with nuclear facilities and a significant industrial base have signed the NPT as non-nuclear-weapons states and have accepted IAEA inspections.

    However, the lack of control of fissile materials and the economic conditions in the former Soviet Union have increased the possibility of such materials becoming available on the international black market. Several instances involving smuggled plutonium and enriched uranium from the former Soviet Union have been observed since 1994.

    Complete Bibliography on Proliferation from the ALSOS Digital Library for Nuclear Issues

©2003 Kennesaw State University
Principal Investigator Laurence Peterson
Project Director Matthew Hermes