Some questions and answers to help explain the for its plant, and enrich it further to make a bomb?
Q. Don't nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs both use uranium?
A. Yes, but very different kinds of uranium. The natural uranium found in the ground contains less than one per cent of the fissile isotope uranium-235. Atomic power plants today are fueled with this natural uranium, or uranium that has been enriched to contain about 3.5 per cent uranium-235. Nuclear bombs, on the other hand, use uranium that has been enriched to over 90 per cent. Experts feel uranium would have to be enriched to at least 20 per cent for use in even a crude nuclear device.
Q. But couldn't a country just take the fuel for its power plant, and enrich it further to make a bomb?
A. A uranium enrichment plant is a very costly and technically complex facility. It took South Africa, the only non-weapon state to thus far put an enrichment plant into operation, about 15 years to master the secrets of the technology and construct a "pilot" facility.
Q. So, where do developing countries that use enriched uranium in their power plants get it.
A. They buy it as part of a package deal along with the power plants. Most of it is supplied by the United States, though some comes from Europe and the Soviet Union. The suppliers all require that the developing countries let inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency keep track of the fuel under safeguard agreements.
Q. Well, if they can't use the uranium fuel for bombs, why are nuclear power plants a problem?
A. The nuclear fission that occurs in an atomic power plant produces heat, which in turn produces steam that powers steam generators. During this process, some of the uranium is converted to Plutonium which can be used to make a nucleam bomb.
Q. Can a country just take this plutonium out of its power plants, and turn it into weapons?
A. No. When the plutonium is removed from the power plant with the spent fuel, it is part of a dangerous mix of exceedingly radioactive produces. The current practice is to store this spent fuel in deep pools of water.
Q. Well, why should we worry about this plutonium?
A. The worry arises when a country decides to build a reprocessing plant. This type of facility -- while complicated -- would be far easier, quicker and cheaper to build than a uranium enrichment plant, and would extract the plutonium from the spent fuel chemically.
Q. So, if a country builds a reprocessing plant, it must be trying to develop nuclear weapons?
A. Not necessarily. While the plutonium could be used to build atomic bombs, it could also be used instead of uranium -- to refuel the nuclear power plant that it came out of. Some countries think this might save them a large amount of money on fuel for their atomic power plants in the 1990s.
Q. What is the Carter administration's position?
A. The Carter administration is trying to discourage the construction of reprocessing plants at this time. It believes commercial reprocessing may not be economically advantageous, and wants to at least delay the spread of facilities that produce large amounts of plutonium that can be used in weapons.
Q. How many bombs could you produce from the plutonium that comes out of an atomic power station?
A. Well, the West German reactors that are currently under construction in Iran and Brazil, in normal operation, would each produce about 300 kilograms of plutonium annually. While the amount of plutonium needed for a bomb would vary depending on the sophistication of the weapon design, each of these power plants would produce enough plutonium for about 15 atomic bombs per year.