- Armament and disarmament
- Conflict, peace and security
- Peace and development
HAROLD FEIVESON, ALEXANDER GLASER, ZIA MIAN AND FRANK VON HIPPEL
I. Introduction: fissile materials and nuclear weapons
II. Military and civilian fissile material stocks
III. The production and disposition of fissile materials
Today, there are roughly 1700 tonnes of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and 500 tonnes of separated plutonium in the world, sufficient to produce over 100 000 nuclear weapons. Access to these fissile materials is the main technical barrier determining whether a state can acquire nuclear weapons. Russia and the USA possess more than 90 per cent of the fissile materials produced for weapons, but half of the separated plutonium has been produced for civilian purposes. While the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states have all stopped producing fissile materials for weapons, India, Pakistan and perhaps Israel and North Korea continue to do so.
Russia and the USA have declared significant amounts of HEU as being in excess of military needs. About 285 tonnes of Russian HEU and 92 tonnes of US HEU from redundant nuclear warheads have been down-blended and sold for use in US civilian power reactors. However, Russia, the United Kingdom and the USA have very large stocks of weapon-usable HEU for future use in their naval reactors. The USA alone has a declared naval reserve of weapon-grade HEU large enough to make approximately 5000 nuclear warheads.
The global stockpile of separated plutonium is a little over 500 tonnes. Almost half of this stockpile is military and is held by the USA and Russia. About 250 tonnes of plutonium has been separated from spent fuel from civilian nuclear power reactors, mostly in the UK, France and Russia. The growing stock of civilian separated plutonium will soon be significantly larger than the amount intended for use in weapons—and it is all weapon-usable.
The civilian nuclear fuel cycle relies on uranium enrichment, increasingly by use of gas-centrifuge technology. Significant facilities are operating, under construction or planned in 12 countries. The uneconomical practice of separating plutonium from civilian power-reactor fuel for recycling continues primarily because of difficulties in obtaining local acceptance of centralized spent-fuel storage facilities. Sizeable reprocessing facilities operate in France, India, Israel, Japan, Pakistan, Russia and the UK.
Major uncertainties remain about the size of the stockpiles of military fissile material held by all the nuclear weapon states other than the USA and the UK. Declarations of fissile material stocks and greater transparency about their production and disposition histories in other countries could build confidence for further reductions in nuclear arsenals and fissile material holdings.
Harold A. Feiveson (USA) is a Senior Research Policy Scientist at Princeton University and a member of Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Alexander Glaser (Germany) is a member of the research staff of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security.
Zia Mian (Pakistan/UK) is a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.
Frank von Hippel (USA) is a nuclear physicist and Professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.