The Plutonium Red Team Study

In the mid-1990s, a “Red Team” (simulated adversary) was launched by the Sandia national laboratory. It looked at all the processes for disposing of excess plutonium (especially after the fall of the USSR) and studied their potential vulnerabilities for unsavory acquisition of nuclear materials. The report is a very interesting read.

Everything from fuel assemblies to mixed/ceramic encased disposed plutonium is studied. The vulnerabilities studied include both accessing it at the storage site and separating the weapons-usable material. It’s quite interesting, yet gives the impression that most nuclear thieves would need to be employed by either a state or the cast of Payday 2. Which is kind of the point, showing the difference between more and less plausible points of failure.

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.