The Cost of Making Nuclear Weapons

I’ve been working on it for some time but I haven’t succeeded in making this gell as a solid, coherent post. Sorry about that. These things happen. I’m posting it anyway so that it may be of some help to anyone who starts thinking along similar lines to those I’ve been thinking in.

In my first post on nuclear weapons policy I suggested that one tactic that might be considered is a deliberate move to reducing the number of countries likely to seek nuclear weapons by increasing the cost of developing them. This post is an attempt at sketching out how that might work.

While nuclear weapons are cheaper than conventional forces, they’re still expensive. A hipshot breakdown of their costs include the cost of the technology, the cost of the fissible material, the cost of the device itself, and the cost of the delivery system. One byproduct of modern transportation and communication is that the transaction costs on information exchange have gone down. An unfortunate side effect of this is that they reduce the cost of developing things like nuclear weapons just as well as other more benign forms of collaboration. To the extent that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is a means of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, modern communications and transportation technology have reduced the effectiveness of the NPT.

In a brief digression, Israel’s attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor back in 1981 may have had the effect of raising the cost of developing nuclear weapons. Indeed, the perceived willingness of countries to attack the nuclear weapons development programs of prospective opponents has the effect of raising the cost of developing nuclear weapons by increasing the need for secrecy, hardening of development sites, etc. These things aren’t free.

Much of the attention on preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been on preventing fissile materials suitable for use in a nuclear weapon from falling into the hands of those who might wish to use them in one. There’s a good reason: these materials constitute a bottleneck and it’s a fairly narrow one. Ironically, the progress in reducing the enormous number of nuclear weapons possessed by Russia and the U. S. has increased the danger of the materials in decommissioned weapons falling into the wrong hands. Although security measures were put into place, there’s pretty fair evidence that the measures weren’t perfect. Additionally, the nuclear fuel created by reprocessing the mass from decommissioned weapons has had the unforeseen secondary effect of reducing the cost of uranium and, consequently, the cost of obtaining for use in a weapons development program.

World production of U3O8 is roughly 47,000 tonnes. The spot price of uranium is about $90/lb. Conseqently, the total world production of natural uranium (the yellowcake we’ve heard so much about) is about $10 billion annually, much of which comes from Canada, Australia, and Kazakhstan with lesser amounts produced in Niger, Russia, the U.S., and other countries.

Since the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapons development program is much on people’s minds, let’s use Iran as an example.

Annual Iranian oil revenues, the government’s main source of revenue, are roughly $50 billion annually. BTW, there have been some signs that, despite the rising price of oil, the Iranian government’s revenues from oil are actually falling due to decreasing production (for various reasons). Add to this the draw on the treasury created by the profligate policy of subsidizing gasoline which, while creating a certain amount of political peace, has the unfortunate secondary effect of increasing the use of gasoline in the country and decreasing the amount of the government’s revenues available for spending on nuclear development programs, whether peaceful or weapons development.

It takes a lot of natural uranium to produce enough highly enriched uranium (also known as weapons grade uranium) for a bomb. The rule of thumb is roughly two orders of magnitude i.e. it takes 100 lb. of natural uranium to produce a pound of HEU. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that since there’s a complex relationship between the amount of uranium you process and how long you process it (which also increases the cost). You’ll see the acronym SWU, separation work units, quite a bit. Good references include

the Wikipedia page on the nuclear fuel cycle
Argonne National Laboratory’s discussion of the subject

Critical mass for 85% 235U HEU is 50kg or roughly 110lb. Using a back-of-the-envelope figure of $10,000 per lb. for HEU that means the raw material costs of the natural uranium it takes to make a bomb, exclusive of processing costs, is a little over a million dollars worth of HEU to make a bomb.

I’ve seen estimates of the cost on the market of the amount of HEU needed for a single bomb as being in the tens or hundreds or millions of dollars. Gas centrifuges aren’t free either. That implies (at least to me) that it’s possible to raise the price of making a nuclear weapon high enough that it puts it beyond the means of all but the very richest nations to make them.

Consider, for example, an international agency with the funding to buy and store a lot of uranium and a program something like the handgun turn-in programs that exist in some cities in which you can turn in handguns and be compensated for them no questions asked. Couldn’t black market HEU be removed from the market by buying it?

There would need to be provisions for selling the uranium to qualified buyers but that sounds to me like a good means of improving the security under which weapons-grade material is kept.

Something to think about, anyway.

2 comments… add one
  • David, Not a bad idea — but like the Baruch Plan, there will always be questions of “legitimacy” of the international agency entrusted with serving as the steward of the HEU. Like Zen’s recommendation, I think rational self interest (and a deep pocket) can incentivize a lot of powers from pursuing programs. And since HEU is the easiest to weaponize (as compared to plutonium), consolidating it and defending it benefits non-proliferation.

  • Emphasis on the “deep pockets”. That’s pretty much my point. It looks to me as though it’s possible to put nuclear weapons out of the price range of any but the largest and richest powers.

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