Reactor Grade Plutonium

Reactor-grade (as opposed to weapons-grade) plutonium has been hotly (no pun intended) argued over as to its suitability for nuclear warheads. From the open-source claims I’ve been reading, there are arguments that I’m not qualified to address the technical side of, but a couple of common themes have emerged:

  • Every extant nuclear power has chosen to go ahead with the additional expense of weapons-grade plutonium rather than trying to make something out of reactor-grade material. There have been tests and rumors, but that’s it.
  • Reactor-grade plutonium is hotter, more dangerous when exposed [making design and handling more difficult], requires more material for less explosive power, and is far more likely to fizzle (detonate instantly with a much lower yield).
  • However, even the low yield (less than a kiloton) is still a radioactive Beirut explosion, raising fears of nuclear terrorism with stolen reactor-grade materials.
  • Improved design can remove many of the shortcomings of reactor-grade plutonium.
  • The increased yield uncertainty makes it less attractive for tactical operations.

Still, the technically “easiest” way just to make a nuclear explosion with national-level resources would be to use civilian reactor-grade plutonium to put together an atomic charge. The list of countries that could do such a thing is much longer than the conventional nuclear states. Granted, they’d be facing a large backlash to make an explosive charge that’s 1940s-level at best and has little practical military utility, but it’s what’s the most possible in spherical cow terms.

4 thoughts on “Reactor Grade Plutonium

  1. Very interesting. Post Cold War history has amply taught all nations that even a small stockpile is sovereign proof against invasion, if nothing else. In coming decades, we’ll surely have many more nuclear “powers” in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve actually come to the opposite conclusion, and I think it’s noteworthy that scholars have consistently overestimated the number of emerging nuclear powers. Countries around the world have decided that getting North Korea’s invasion resistance in exchange for North Korea’s economy is not a fair trade.

      Then again, the sample size is too small and has too many confounds to make judgements based on any historical case.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. True, the citizens of those countries would definitely make that calculation. Their dear leaders, not so much.

        Begin making amends to join the world community, give up your nuclear program like Gaddafi’s Libya… I reckon a lot of dictators learned a life lesson from that fiasco.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Jose Serrano

    Interesting thoughts, but in reality, the longer the Plutonium remains in the reactor, the less suitable it is, as Pu240 builds up, and that will lead to a fizzle. Clandestine nuclear powers seem to prefer enriched Uranium because, in practical terms, it’s easier to obtain and more covert, plus a linear device like the one used in Hiroshima, is easy to build and deploy in a missile.


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