Weak link between civil nuclear and nuclear weapons?

Hi Steve,
I don’t think anyone involved in a submarine-inclusive nuclear exchange would be returning to port to re-stock the missile tubes on Day 3…. though the submariners would have lots of time to watch films like The Bedford Incident and On the Beach, and read nuclear warfare aftermath reports like :
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00139157.2017.1325300?cookieSet=1

I don’t think any additional enriched U 235 / 238 (Half-Life in millions and billions of years) or Pu 239 (HL 24,000 years) is needed for the UK nuclear deterrence (CASD four subs * or 6+ fleet subs). New missiles would re-use the PU pits and U. The fastest decaying high-yield explosive in nuclear weapons is the tritium which needs to be refreshed to maintain the biggest bang (which is up to 100 kt in UK warheads).
Its probably only the Russians who are manufacturing up to 2 Mt size weapons (eg tsunami torpedos) :
Tritium is the very powerful active ingredient of nuclear bombs alongside the Pu and U but has a half-life of 12.3 years. So the explosive yield of (most types of) nuclear weapons just decays away significantly over 10 – 20 years !
Indeed, for this reason a ‘Tritium Freeze’ has been proposed a possible practical ‘disarmament’ route (well, pre Ukraine invasion at least) – see : https://www.sipri.org/commentary/topical-backgrounder/2020/starve-nuclear-weapons-death-tritium-freeze#:~:text=Tritium%20is%20a%20radioactive%20isotope,fission%20weapon%20or%20fission%20primary.
So a production line for tritium IS required for military purposes. In the UK, two of the four small 60 MWe reactors commissioned in 1959 at Chapelcross were used to produce military/weapons tritium ( and Pu) production until decom in 2004. The UK has presumably been getting most or all its tritium from the US since then.
In the 1990s the US chose four civil LW reactors for its tritium production and retained a high energy accelerator as a option – see : https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML0325/ML032521359.pdf
Currently, one or now two 1.1 GW Westinghouse LWRs are used for tritium provision to all the US’s large nuclear arsenal : https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2017/03/06/commentary-the-looming-crisis-for-us-tritium-production/
So, if the UK wants a future tritium production capability then a specifically design 50-100 MWe reactor would only be needed for the on-going supply of tritium for the UK CASD – ie not anything like 24 GW of commercial reactors.
In my view, the so-termed ‘civil-military link’, which was essentially the 100% rationale post WW2 (ie HEU, Pu and Tritium for bombs and naval reactor fuel / design), is now weak and incidental. I think its time to point out that the National Defence downsides of civil nuclear energy significantly outweighs any (essentially unavoidable, residual, incidental) ‘cross-benefits’ / ‘cross-subsidy’ (claimed as a leading rationale for new civil nuclear by Andy Stirling SPRU, CND and others and probably agreed with by many in the anti-nuclear camp).
Even dockyard welding skills on offshore wind turbines could be deemed a cross-benefit to submarine construction capability, and UK offshore windfarms could be slated for being capable of being safe-havens for allied submarines. Rolls Royce benefits from having politicians and public believe their civil nuclear skills are necessary to maintain the CASD.
I’ve long said that it would be much cheaper for HMG to invest in a naval reactor design ’school’ and a couple of research reactors rather than building, at significant subsidy, a then 16 GW, now 24 GW, civil nuclear energy programme (just to hide a claimed military subsidy). Why bother ? Industry observers were even saying that naval nuclear designers etc would probably be ‘poached’ by better pay in the civil sector. Indeed, such a ‘school’ a BAE Systems ’Submarines Academy for Skills and Knowledge’ has been set up in 2018 and now has over 1,000 staff – surely that lot and some latest CAD software can design a naval reactor every ten to twenty years.
As regards HEU for naval reactor fuel the Royal Navy uses about 0.07 tonnes annually and the UK has a stock of around 21 tonnes of HEU as of 2012 of which 7.2 tonnes is deemed for naval propulsion and 11.7 tonnes for weapons use. So the UK has at least 80 years worth of HEU fuel assuming around ten nuclear powered subs in total. The AUKUS deal could potentially draw on UK HEU stocks, and that of the US, but HEU is produced in specialist Gas Diffusion Plants *eg Capenhurst, UK), not civil reactors and the Australians do have access to considerable (indigenous !) uranium ores. There are no current UK plans for HEU production – see middle paragraph on HEU tonnage stocks page 8 : https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/84697/1/2015_FAS_UK_NNPP_HEU_final2.pdf
I think that the current political support for a new-build civil nuclear programme is partly a function of a perceived, as distinct to an actual, need for civil nuclear skills etc to support a CASD, but more-so the intense lobbying by the nuclear industry exploiting historical links and convincing politicians that nuclear energy is a necessity in tackling climate change.
Then there are some in academic circles (eg centred around Oxford’s spires and possibly some TV orbiting particle physicists) who see nuclear fission as a technological progression – a silver bullet (literally) but denied in name – as the current step, from primitive renewables and then industrial revolution fossils, to fission now and to fusion tomorrow, and presumably some low-tech alien mech by 2100.
I think that ‘we’ should be pointing out the significant and long-term threat to the UK of building civil reactors on the false prospectus that they are needed to supply low-carbon baseload electricity on account that such infrastructure could be weaponised against us even by small groups of terrorists, unknown proxies of unknown size, and nation states of any size.
Neil
* I think just four ballistic missile subs now comprising a so-called ‘minimum deterrent’ is probably now sub-optimal (pardon the pun) in the emerging world of cheap military smart weaponised drones (sub-sea) and more sensitive sensors (inc from space) as it may tempt some desperados to try a first / knock-out strike. For example, of the four subs maybe two would be at sea at times of heightened tension, one in refit, and one by dock in resupply / re-crew. So if drones or satellites can track (and subsequently sink on command) the two at sea then its game over for that country – depending on IF other allies want to risk their countries. IF the US political system takes a wobble then the temptation would be much greater.
PS is it just me or is the US being reckless in stirring up things with China over Taiwan at this time especially – opening wars on two fronts and pushing China closer to Moscow is hardly a pincer movement that would likely have a peaceful outcome ?
On 26 Aug 2022, at 11:26, Steve Harper <steveharper@> wrote:
Hi,
 
I came across a report that says:
 
The UK ceased production of fissile material for weapons production in 1995. According to the latest report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials it does, however, retain a fissile material stockpile of 22 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and 3.2 metric tons of plutonium for weapons purposes.17 In 2013 the MOD confirmed that “once processed, the material from dismantled warheads is returned to the MOD nuclear material stockpile. It is not government policy to place this material under international safeguards”.
 
The 4 x subs each can carry 48 warheads and the number of warheads UK can have under the NPT can be up to a max of 260. I don’t know if the material stockpile is enough to cover all eventualities but it could be. If the strategy is right then it should be. Would it be a jump to suggest that the only reason more materials (and hence more NPP’s) may be needed is for an increase in the stockpile of warheads?
 
In a 4/5 day scenario of all-out nuclear war is there time to restock the subs? The facilities to do so may no longer exist after day 3.
 
Best regards,
 
Steve

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