Media Misses the Mark on North Korean Nukes
I awoke this morning to news reports that North Korea has once again resumed their production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. I suspect that’s no real surprise to anyone who pays attention to such things. After all, they threw IAEA inspectors out this spring and told the world of their plans.
All of the major news outlets carried the story, and virtually every one reported that the North Koreans obtained the plutonium by reprocessing spent fuel from their nuclear plant. The term “nuclear plant” in this instance refers to their small 5 MW test reactor, NOT a nuclear power plant designed to produce energy for industrial use or electricity generation.
Nuclear reactors come in many sizes and shapes; test and training reactors at universities, research reactors for government and industry, reactors used to produce medical isotopes, reactors inside nuclear power plants, and reactors designed to produce weapons materials. Each type is uniquely suited for its purpose, and usable weapons-grade plutonium is not produced by accident. It can only be obtained by reprocessing a unique kind of nuclear fuel from a reactor is operated a very specific way. In episode 77 of “This Week in Nuclear” I explained the details of why this is true, so go back and take a look if you’d like the details.
These are critically important differences. Imprecise reporting like this leads to misunderstanding on a broad scale. There is a huge misperception in the general population and among many otherwise well-informed policy makers that nuclear power plants can explode like atomic bombs, and that rogue nations could use their commercial nuclear power plants to kick start weapons programs. Both of these are wrong, and these misunderstandings are used to stoke anti-nuclear sentiments. In the end, failing to understand these differences can contribute to policy decisions and regulations that could deprive society of the benefits of nuclear energy.
Here’s what you need to remember: Used fuel from commercial nuclear power plants can not be used to make atomic bombs. No nation has ever created a nuclear weapon from spent fuel that came from a commercial nuclear power plant.