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Saturday, August 13, 2005

Nuclear Terrorism: Obtaining Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)

In order to make a very simple implosion type nuclear bomb you need a minimum of 33 lbs or 15 kg of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU enriched to 90 percent U-235).

The Union of Concerned Scientists provide some more details:

Uranium occurs naturally, but fortunately not in a form that is directly usable for nuclear weapons. Natural uranium consists mostly of two different "isotopes"—atoms of the same element that differ only in their numbers of neutrons and thus have slightly different weights. Natural uranium contains approximately 0.7 percent uranium-235 (the isotope essential for nuclear weapons) and 99.3 percent uranium-238. To convert natural uranium into a form that can be used in nuclear weapons, it must be "enriched" to increase the concentration of uranium-235.

Enriching uranium is both technically difficult and expensive, as it requires separating isotopes that have very similar chemical and physical properties. The enrichment process is thus the main barrier to producing uranium suitable for use in nuclear weapons.

How much is needed to build a bomb?

The amount of HEU needed to make a nuclear weapon varies with the degree of enrichment and the sophistication of the weapon design. In general, the higher the enrichment level, the less HEU is needed to make a bomb. For a HEU-based nuclear weapon, there are two basic design options: a "gun-type" weapon where two pieces of HEU are brought together quickly and explode, and an "implosion weapon," where a sphere of HEU is rapidly compressed in a highly symmetrical manner. Gun-type weapons are far simpler in design and could likely be built by some terrorist groups. The second is more difficult technically but requires less HEU. Plutonium-based nuclear weapons only work as implosion weapons, with more sophisticated weapons using less plutonium.

The fissile uranium in nuclear weapons usually contains 85% or more of U-235 (weapons-grade), though for a crude inefficient weapon 20% is sufficient (this is called weapons-usable).

Reported Thefts of Nuclear Materials:

In most of the 25 incidents, the material was stolen or is suspected to have originated from nuclear facilities in Russia. Nuclear research institutions, fuel production facilities, and naval fuel depots have been the most frequent sites for successful material diversion.

  • Government-confirmed cases involving weapons-usable material:

    Date of Seizure......Location of Seizure.........Type and Amount of Material

    24 May 1993..........Vilnius, Lithuania..........100 g of 50% HEU
    10 May 1994..........Tengen, Germany..........6.2 g of Plutonium, Pu-239 (99.75%)
    June 1994..........St. Petersburg, Russia..........2.972 kg of 90% HEU
    13 Jun 1994..........Landshut, Germany..........795 mg of 87.7% HEU
    25 Jul 1994..........Munich, Germany..........240 mg of Pu-239
    10 Aug 1994..........Munich airport, Germany..........363 g of Pu-239
    14 Dec 1994..........Prague, Czech Rep..........2.73 kg of 87.7% HEU
    6 Jun 1995..........Prague, Czech Rep...........415 mg of 87.7% HEU
    7 Jun 1995..........Moscow, Russia..........1.7 kg of 21% HEU
    8 Jun 1995..........Ceske Budejovice,Czech Rep...........17 g of 87.7% HEU
    28 May 1999..........Rousse, Bulgaria..........4 g of 72.65% HEU
    2 Oct 1999..........Kara-Balta, Kyrghyzstan..........1.49 g of Pu
    19 Apr 2000..........Batumi, Georgia..........920 g of 30 (±3)% HEU
    16 Sep 2000..........Tbilisi airport, Georgia..........Pu (0.4 g)
    2 Jan 2001..........Liepaja sea port, Latvia..........6 g of Pu in Pu/Be sources
    28 Jan 2001..........Tessaloniki, Greece..........3 g of Pu-239 in anti-static devices
    22 Jul 2001..........Paris, France..........2.5 g of 72.57% HEU

  • Other highly-credible cases involving weapons-usable material:

    Date..........Name of Incident..........Type and Amount of Material

    3 Feb 1992..........Munich, Germany..........Pu (115 mg) in smoke-detectors
    6 Oct 1992..........Podolsk, Russia..........1.5 kg of 90% HEU
    29 Jul 1993..........Andreeva Guba, Russia..........1.8 kg of 36% HEU
    27 Nov 1993..........Sevmorput, Russia..........4.5 kg of 20% HEU
    1992-1997..........Sukhumi,Abkhazia, Georgia..........655 g of 90% HEU
    1998..........Chelyabinsk region, Russia..........18.5 kg of HEU
    2000..........Electrostal, Russia..........3.7 kg of 21% HEU
    2001..........Erlangen, Germany..........0.8 g HEU

Links:
Illicit Trafficking of Weapons-Usable Nuclear Material: Facts and Uncertainties [ecolo.org, Jan. 2004]
Closing the Gaps: Securing High Enriched Uranium in the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe [fas.org]
Nuclear Threat Initiative [nti.org]

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