Nuclear Power & Weapons

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The Problem

  • There is a long history of peaceful nuclear programs providing political cover and technical support for nuclear weapons programs. An expansion of nuclear power is likely to exacerbate the problem.
  • All existing and proposed nuclear power concepts pose unacceptable risks of facilitating weapons proliferation.
  • The nuclear ‘safeguards’ system is flawed, limited in its scope, and seriously under-resourced.

Of the 10 nations to have produced nuclear weapons

  • Six did so with political cover and/or technical support from their supposedly peaceful nuclear program – India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and North Korea. (France could be added to that list.)
  • The other four nuclear weapons states (US, Russia, China, UK) developed nuclear weapons before nuclear power − but there are still significant links between their peaceful and military nuclear programs (e.g. routine transfer of personnel).
  • Eight of the 10 nations have nuclear power reactors (with those eight countries accounting for nearly 60% of global nuclear power capacity).
  • North Korea has no operating power reactors (but nevertheless its nuclear power development program was central to its weapons program).
  • Israel has no power reactors, though the pretence of an interest in the development of nuclear power helped to justify nuclear transfers to Israel.

Click here for a Choose Nuclear Free webpage for country case studies illustrating the links between nuclear power and weapons.

Direct use of nuclear power reactors in weapons programs

Examples of the direct use of nuclear power reactors in weapons programs include the following:

  • North Korea’s nuclear weapons tests have used plutonium produced in an Experimental Power Reactor.
  • Power reactors are used in support of India’s nuclear weapons program − this has long been suspected and is no longer in doubt since India is refusing to allow eight out of 22 reactors to be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards inspections.
  • The use of power reactors in the US to produce tritium for use in ‘boosted’ nuclear weapons.
  • The 1962 test of sub-weapon-grade plutonium by the US may have used plutonium from a power reactor.
  • Pakistan may be using power reactor/s in support of its nuclear weapons program.
  • Australian Prime Minister John Gorton had military ambitions for the power reactor he pushed to have constructed in the late 1960s at Jervis Bay on the NSW coast. He later said: “We were interested in this thing because it could provide electricity to everybody and it could, if you decided later on, it could make an atomic bomb.”
  • France’s civilian nuclear program provided the base of expertise for its later weapons program, and material for weapons was sometimes produced in power reactors.
  • Magnox reactors in the UK had the dual roles of producing weapon grade plutonium and generating electricity.

Nuclear power programs have facilitated and provided cover for weapons programs even without direct use of power reactor/s in the weapons program. Nuclear power programs provide a rationale for the acquisition and use of:

  • enrichment technology (which can produce low enriched uranium for power reactors or highly enriched uranium for weapons)
  • reprocessing technology (which divides spent nuclear fuel into three streams − uranium, high-level waste, and weapons-useable plutonium).
  • research and training reactors (which can produce plutonium and other materials for weapons and also be used for weapons-related research).

The nuclear weapons programs in South Africa and Pakistan were outgrowths of their power programs although enrichment plants, not power reactors, produced the fissile material for use in weapons.

Research and training reactors, ostensibly acquired in support of a power program or for other civil purposes, have been the plutonium source for weapons in India and Israel and have been used for weapons-related research and experiments in numerous other countries including Iraq, Iran, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Yugoslavia, and possibly Romania.

Nuclear power programs can facilitate weapons programs even if power reactors are not actually built. Iraq provides a clear illustration of this point. While Iraq’s nuclear research program provided much cover for the weapons program from the 1970s to 1991, stated interest in developing nuclear power was also significant. Iraq pursued a ‘shop til you drop’ program of acquiring dual-use technology, with much of the shopping done openly and justified by nuclear power ambitions.

According to Khidhir Hamza, a senior nuclear scientist involved in Iraq’s weapons program: “Acquiring nuclear technology within the IAEA safeguards system was the first step in establishing the infrastructure necessary to develop nuclear weapons. In 1973, we decided to acquire a 40-megawatt research reactor, a fuel manufacturing plant, and nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, all under cover of acquiring the expertise needed to eventually build and operate nuclear power plants and produce and recycle nuclear fuel. Our hidden agenda was to clandestinely develop the expertise and infrastructure needed to produce weapon-grade plutonium.”