The Bomb Spreads

Civilian reactors can be used for research, produce electricity (power reactors), or power submarines. Research reactors are used to test or analyze materials, produce radioisotopes for medical or industrial use (some decay so rapidly that they could not be transported long distances), or for education. Early research reactors used highly enriched uranium (20% or more U-235), some of it weapons grade (90% or more U-235). (Lightly enriched uranium is less than 20% U-235, reactor grade up to 4%+ U-235.)

Again, much thanks to David Bodansky’s Nuclear Energy (second edition).


• 1948 Begins rudimentary nuclear program
• 1956 Small research reactor using enriched uranium from Britain
• 1960 Obtains larger Canadian natural uranium research reactor from Canada and US (CIRUS)
• 1962 Uses its own uranium and makes its own heavy water for CIRUS. The importance of the heavy water (water made from hydrogen with a neutron, H-2) is that it could be used to make plutonium. Later, India builds a reprocessing facility to extract plutonium.
• 1974 Sets off nuclear device (too bulky to have been delivered in usable weapon)
• 1985 Constructs Dhvura research reactor to produce plutonium
• 1998 Conducts underground tests, declares its rights to weapons, deplores the need for weapons, criticizes preferences in NPT for NWS, and announces a voluntary moratorium.

The CIRUS and Dhruva reactors may produce 30 kg of weapons-grade plutonium per year. Additionally, India has developed some capability to enrich uranium.

India has been able to blur the distinction between peaceful uses of nuclear energy on the one hand and a weapons program on the other, having made use of research reactors and, conceivably, power-generating reactors to obtain fissile material. Perhaps this is the leading case where there might be a positive link between possession of civilian nuclear power and the development of nuclear weapons. The start appears to have come using a research reactor, rather than a power reactor, but an expanded weapons program could be partly hidden behind its power generation program, if India chooses to do so.

That is, India could extract plutonium from its nuclear power reactor for use in weapons.


• 1971 Loses to India in a mini-war
• 1972 Decides to develop its own nuclear weapons, using both uranium enrichment and plutonium extraction, primarily the former.
• 1998 Detonates six devices, from one in the 25-36 kt (thousand metric tonne) range, to three below 1 kt. Pakistan also announced the existence of a reactor which could be used for plutonium production.

Dr. Khan, who led the program, had worked in the Netherlands at a company associated with uranium enrichment, and is thought to have stolen designs in 1976. Specialized equipment was sent surreptitiously from China and from companies in Germany. Likely they received even more help from other sources. In turn, Pakistan sold technical information and equipment to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, and provided uranium to Libya. Approaches may have been made to Iraq and Syria. Khan may have had the support of the Pakistan government; his own motivations appear to be both ideological and financial.


In the 1960s, there are reports that Israel was developing nuclear weapons. France helps construct a research reactor which began operation in 1963. Israel also builds a plutonium reprocessing facility. Some believe that Israel has uranium enrichment capability. Their well-developed nuclear weapons program began with France’s help, but has continued with the acquiescence of the US.

North Korea

North Korea illustrates how a country with a relatively small technical base may be able to go it alone in weapons development, given sufficient determination and some small initial help.

• 1965 USSR provides research reactor
• 1975 USSR helps with small-scale reprocessing, a small amount of plutonium is extracted
• 1980s Serious weapons program begins with a new reactor, which goes into operation in 1986. It was similar to designs in 1940s Britain. Ratifies NPT 1985, but keeps reactor free of continuous International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. IAEA team in 1992 concludes plutonium has been separated from spent reactor fuel.
• 1994 Agreed framework offers fuel oil and nuclear power for foregoing nuclear weapons.
• 1996 Two larger reactors go into operation, though one may be primarily for electricity.
• 2002 Acknowledges a program to enrich uranium, affirms at least a potential nuclear weapons program, announces reactivation of reactor shut down since 1994. Withdraws from NPT in January 2003.
• [2006 October 9, bomb test.]


• 1976 France sells research reactor which uses highly enriched uranium. Iraq wishes to replace this with natural or depleted uranium (more U-238) to make plutonium. Israel bombs and destroys 1981.
• 1980s Makes unsuccessful attempt to purchase plutonium from Italian arms smugglers, begins efforts to produce enriched uranium. By 1989, has centrifuge enrichment.
• 1991, After Iraq war, IAEA inspections reveal more technology and the successful separation of plutonium from a research reactor. They had received equipment and information (unwittingly?) from West Germany, Switzerland, and the US. UN inspectors destroy physical facilities for making nuclear weapons. Inspectors withdraw in 1998.


• 1960s Western countries cooperate with Shah’s ambitions, beginning with a research reactor
• 1970s Two large West German (power?) reactors begin in 1974, but ended because of both Irani and foreign opposition to continuing after 1979 fall of Shah. Damaged during Iran-Iraq war.
• 1995 Russia agrees to replace reactor. [It is due to be completed next year, Russia may be delaying completion, as completion date keeps being postponed.] A second reactor is listed as “under construction”, and reports exist about discussions between Russia and Iran about additional reactors.
• 2003 Confirmation that Iran is building a uranium-enrichment plant. IAEA investigates, and finds the following: a small pilot centrifuge of enrichment of uranium and a commercial plant under construction, a heavy water production plant under construction, another reactor with natural uranium fuel and heavy water moderator under construction.

Iran is only capable of enriching uranium for a commercial power reactor but it is thought that they could develop a secret enrichment facility for weapons grade uranium. The enrichment capability was aided by several sources, including some from Germany, Switzerland, China, and Pakistan.

Iran is allowed both enrichment and heavy water facilities under the terms of its NPT agreements with the IAEA, though the IAEA likes to be kept better informed.

Future Iranian efforts to build weapons could be restrained by internal Iranian policy decisions, pressure from Russia, economic and political campaigns organized by the United States, or more stringent IAEA requirements.

Arms Control Association has more information on Iran to date.

Unsealing a nuclear threat

Unsealing a nuclear threat: Iran threw down a gauntlet by breaking the IAEA seal on a uranium enrichment facility

Other countries

• South Korea abandons its weapons programs (from the 1960s and 1970s) under international pressure.
• Sweden (1950s) gives up its active program under domestic pressure.
• Taiwan (1980s) produces plutonium from a reactor obtained in 1969 from Canada. Under US pressure, it ships this to the US, shuts down the reactor, then ships the heavy water to the US as well. This may not have been a weapons program.
• Argentina obtains a small research reactor in 1958, a power reactor in 1974, and makes public moves toward a weapons program in 1978, announcing a planned plutonium reprocessing plant and uranium enrichment. These are originally intended as parts of a weapons program in competition with Brazil. In 1990, Argentina and Brazil renounce nuclear weapons, and in 1991, sign a joint agreement with IAEA for inspections. Argentina signs the NPT in 1995.
• Brazil, in response to Argentina’s program, starts a uranium-enrichment plant in 1970, putting it into operation in 1988. Brazil also had a small plutonium-reprocessing program. Brazil gives up its nuclear-weapons program along with Argentina, and signs the NPT in 1998. It opens a new uranium-enrichment plant in 2002.
• South Africa starts a uranium enrichment program, to make weapons grade uranium, with German help in the 1970s. In 1990, South Africa abandons its nuclear weapons program. It signs the NPT and enters into a safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 1991.
• Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Union, transfer all of their nuclear weapons to Russia from 1991 – 1996. This compliance benefited from pressure from Russia and the US, and financial incentives from the US. The Ukraine required prolonged negotiation to reach agreement.
• Libya’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons becomes public in 2003, along with an agreement to abandon the program and submit to inspections. Libya received help from individual Pakistani scientists, possibly without knowledge of the Pakistani government, in uranium enrichment.

Also in this series
Part 1 Nuclear Bombs, Nuclear Energy, and Terrorism
Part 2 Today’s Bombs, Making a Bomb
Part 3 Making Bombs from Nuclear Waste
Part 4 Terrorist Targets
Part 5 Nuclear Proliferation – International Treaties
Part 7 Nuclear Power and the Weapons Threat
Part 8 Wrapup on Nuclear Power Series

2 Responses to “The Bomb Spreads”

  1. KO Lord says:

    This blog has come a long way. I am very impressed with the formatting and thoroughness of your presentation. Unfortunately, I am not in the position to comment directly on the technical aspects you discuss, except to say that the possibility of nuclear proliferation from the technology used to develop civilian nuclear power plants is –and will no doubt remain– profoundly disturbing.

  2. catharine Lucas says:

    In working through your extensive data on the history of nuclear weapons proliferation, I find it hard to reach a conclusion about “what now”?

    The one thing that occurs to me is that the US already has both nuclear weapons AND nuclear power plants, so the threat of how nuclear energy reactors or nuclear research might be used in other countries is not a real reason to delay developing our own capacity for producing more nuclear energy to meet our growing energy needs. Elsewhere you have shown what a superior source of energy this fuel can be, in many ways. If we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, we can at least put it to work on slowing global warming. Are there reasons why additional nuclear plants in the US would increase the danger of proliferation in other countries, over what danger already exists? Why not spend time and energy trying to develop better international controls/policies etc. rather than opposing our own peaceful use of nuclear energy, which could help reduce the causes of future wars by helping stabalize climate?