Conferences, Videos & Testimony

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Technical Primer

May 3, 2018

We are pleased to release an online course on the technical underpinnings of nuclear nonproliferation with a special focus on Iran, North Korea, and trafficking in nuclear commodities.  The presenters are David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security, and Houston Wood, Institute Board member and Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Virginia.  They are longstanding nuclear experts with experience in many of the most pressing nuclear nonproliferation cases of the last four decades. 

The course lectures provide an introduction to the key facets of developing the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons, including uranium enrichment, plutonium production and separation, and nuclear weaponization.  Gas centrifuges are discussed extensively since they are today the dominant method to produce enriched uranium and have been favored by proliferant states, such as Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, among others, as part of efforts to seek nuclear weapons or at least a nuclear weapons capability.  Part of the appeal of gas centrifuges stems from the amount of classified information that has leaked about them worldwide and the ability to put together a centrifuge program piecemeal by buying dual-use goods from abroad.  As a result, the course also discusses the illicit procurement of key goods for nuclear programs by several states, such as Iran and Pakistan.  The course is richly illustrated with case studies and extensively uses satellite imagery of nuclear sites.  Because of the importance of satellite imagery in characterizing nuclear programs, one lecture covers the use of commercial satellite imagery in nonproliferation analysis and is presented by Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, a former Institute staff member. 

The intended audience for the course is anyone interested in better understanding nuclear nonproliferation as it has occurred over the last several decades.  The lectures can also supplement a university policy course.  The course is useful for practitioners in government, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations alike. 

The course was generously funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.  The course set and its contents do not necessarily represent the views of the Carnegie Corporation.

The course is composed of a set of lectures and supplementary material.  The videos are hosted on YouTube as linked below:

  • Class 1: Introduction to Nuclear Weapons
  • Class 2: Nuclear Explosive Materials
  • Class 3: Introduction to Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycle
  • Class 4: Nuclear Reactors and Plutonium Production
  • Class 5A: Isotope Separation with a Focus on Uranium Enrichment
  • Class 5B: Separative Work: Introduction
  • Class 6: Gas Centrifuges
  • Class 6 Clip: Thermonuclear Weapons
  • Class 7: High Resolution Commercial Satellite Imagery as a Nonproliferation Tool
  • Class 8: The A.Q. Khan Case
  • Class 9: Introduction to Illicit Nuclear Trade

Supplementary lectures:

Introduction to Gas Centrifuges

Class 1: An Introduction to Nuclear Weapons and Nonproliferation
David Albright provides a brief but detailed introduction to the basic criteria of nuclear weapons and nuclear nonproliferation. In this video, Albright discusses key topics including,  Nuclear Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon States; the two main types of nuclear weapons, implosion type and gun-type; nuclear weapon testing, and the challenges of weapons miniaturization. The video helps establish a solid foundation to better understand the terminology, technology, and procedures discussed in the courses that follow. 

Class 2: Nuclear Explosive Materials
David Albright discusses the nuclear explosive materials Plutonium, Highly Enriched Uranium, Neptunium, and Americium. Albright explains the different grades of Plutonium and Uranium, as well as the specifications for increasing the efficiency of these materials. The video highlights the need for and importance of controlling production and distribution of nuclear explosive materials.

Class 3: Introduction to Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycle
David Albright explains the fuel cycle process, nuclear reactors, and spent fuel. He discusses Uranium mining and milling, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, reactors, spent fuel, and reprocessing, elaborating on the process of developing a nuclear program. Albright also discusses North Korea’s nuclear site at Yongbyon.

Class 4: Nuclear Reactors and Plutonium Production
David Albright identifies the different types of nuclear reactors. He clarifies the differences between the reactor types; each reactor’s purpose; and the associated proliferation risks. Examples of reactors are provided and examined, such as Iran’s Arak reactor and North Korea’s 5 megawatt-electric (MWe) reactor at Yongbyon.  Albright also explains how much plutonium different reactors produce and the significance of “burnup.”

Class 5 A: Isotope Separation with a Focus on Uranium Enrichment
David Albright explains nuclear isotopes and separation mechanisms. Albright provides a detailed explanation of isotope separation and the uses of Deuterium, Lithium, and Uranium. He introduces different Uranium enrichment processes such as Electromagnetic, Gaseous Diffusion, and Aerodynamic enrichment.

Class 5 B: Separative Work: Introduction
David Albright explains the importance of separative work and how to calculate Separative Work Unit, or SWU. Determining separative work can provide an estimate of how much enriched uranium a country can produce in a year.

Class 6: Gas Centrifuges
David Albright explains how gas centrifuges work, including the challenges in producing desired enrichment levels and details the basic types of gas centrifuges. Albright describes cascades and piping systems which are needed for operation of the centrifuges. Additionally, Albright explains the ideal cascade, or the standard for maximum potential of the centrifuge, despite being unattainable in practice. 

Class 6 Clip: Thermonuclear Weapons
David Albright briefly explains the need for Deuterium and Tritium in thermonuclear weapons, and the process of “boosting.”

Class 7: High Resolution Commercial Satellite Imagery as a Nonproliferation Tool
Serena Kelleher-Vergantini explains satellite imagery technology and how the Institute uses satellite imagery to detect and analyze nuclear facilities. She focuses on image processing and analysis, and how they can be used by both nuclear and imagery analysts to determine the nuclear significance. Some nuclear-related sites have easily observable visual signatures, such as uranium mines. Other fuel cycle activities, especially ones conducted inside non-descript buildings, are more difficult to detect and monitor “from the sky.”  The video also addresses ways proliferant states have camouflaged sites and suppressed visible signatures to protect covert nuclear programs from being detected via imagery. Nuclear sites featured in the lecture include: Chashma (Pakistan), Khushab (Pakistan), Arak (Iran), Parchin, (Iran), Fordow (Iran), Rare Materials Plant (India), Special Materials Enrichment Plant (India), Yongbyon (North Korea), Punggye-ri (North Korea), and Al Kibar (Syria). 

Class 8: The A.Q. Khan Case
David Albright explains the significance of Abdul Qadeer Khan’s procurement network and its implications for nuclear proliferation. He provides details of A.Q. Khan’s actions as he was actively proliferating nuclear capabilities for decades. Albright examines the countries involved or potentially involved with the Khan network. He identifies how present nuclear proliferation issues are consequences of Khan’s network, and more specifically how the world can use this as a lesson to curb further nuclear proliferation. By understanding how Khan re-directed his operations to evade authorities and increase the chance of succeeding in his nefarious activities, Albright illustrates the necessity of export and trade controls to prevent nuclear proliferation and illicit nuclear trade.

Class 9: Illicit Nuclear Trade and the Importance of Illicit Procurement Networks
David Albright explains the operations of illicit nuclear trade and illicit procurement networks utilized by states to procure nuclear-related technologies. He further details how smuggling networks operate; the importance of the acquisition of “know-how materials;” the challenges states face in curbing illicit nuclear trade; the components of the networks; and, finally, the critical need for industry-government cooperation in order to curb illicit nuclear trade and nuclear proliferation.

Supplementary lectures:

Introduction to Gas Centrifuges Part I:
Houston Wood provides an introduction to gas centrifuges. He explains the use of gas centrifuges in separating isotopes. Using schematics of a centrifuge, he identifies the components inside and the role of each component. Wood briefly introduces the process of centrifugal separation of isotopes that takes place within the centrifuge. Finally, he focuses on the method used to connect gas centrifuges, i.e the model of a cascade. Wood supplements his discussion with photos of U.S. and Russian centrifuges.

Introduction to Gas Centrifuges Part II:
Houston Wood explains how gas centrifuges separate isotopes. He also discusses the functioning of a uranium enrichment cascade. He describes the different sections of a cascade, and how the isotopes circulate between the centrifuges, introducing the notion of separative work. He finally provides some technical data on the production of highly enriched uranium.

Introduction to Gas Centrifuges Part III:
Houston Wood discusses what is needed in order to build a centrifuge; the construction of the centrifuge, the components, and their materials. He explains how the materials used may influence the component’s characteristics, and therefore how this affects the efficiency of the centrifuge. Wood also identifies three different types of gas centrifuges based on length. In a case study, he examines two of these centrifuge types, the Iguacu centrifuge and the Rome centrifuge.

Introduction to Gas Centrifuges Part IV:
Houston Wood identifies the different steps needed to build a centrifuge plant and develop a centrifuge program in order to enrich uranium. He outlines the decisions that need to be made, including the type of centrifuge, the methods used, and also the strategy to build the centrifuge. Moreover, Wood explains the policies that could affect the program. Last but not least, he describes the steps of creating a centrifuge, from the prototype to the maintenance and improvement of the gas centrifuge.

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