A letter (unpublished) from A. DeVolpi to Physics and Society. Published here with Dr. DeVolpi's permission.

Response to "Usability of Reactor-grade Plutonium in Nuclear Weapons: A Reply to Alex DeVolpi" in Physics and Society, Vol 26(3) (10 July 1997):

by A. DeVolpi, Woodridge, IL

Rather than a "Reply," Marv Miller and Frank von Hippel used my article "A Coverup of Nuclear-Test Information" as a springboard for conveying an academic perspective on reactor-grade plutonium.

For those without a copy handy, my article:

  • cited circumstantial evidence that government deception has continued about the results of a 1962 nuclear-explosive test;

  • raised four specific unanswered questions about (a) quality, (b) national origin, and (c) reactor source of the fissile material, as well as (d) explosive yield of the test;

  • quoted historical evidence that the information released since 1979 has been inconsistent with deducible scientific principles and other published data; asserting that reasonable inferences about the unanswered questions are not resolved by the more recent declassifications, which create additional doubts;

  • compared the declassified test data with the much more specific information released about other--more lethal--nuclear explosives tests; using the unreleased data about the 1962 test to be an inexplicable singularity in the Administration's openness trend; and

  • concluded that the glaring shortfall in data and information about the U.S. explosion with so-called reactor-grade plutonium generates suspicion about the alleged material quality, origin, and success of the experiment; noting that DOE declassification criteria give no justifiable reason to maintain classification of policy-relevant information that has stirred controversy for so long.

Marv and Frank offer sympathy - but not support - for declassification; they, and others, now claim the data, if declassified, would be "irrelevant."

That's odd: For 30 years the 1962 test has been one of the most relevant issues underlying non-proliferation policies!

The professors offer other skewed views of history. They dismiss the actual choice made by Iraq to pursue a uranium-based weapon, raising instead the specter of Iraq making a "low-technology truck bomb [of any plutonium grade]" that would have lead to "disastrous consequences." Sounds like they've been writing plots for Hollywood.

Also, they ignore South Africa's deliberate selection of uranium, not plutonium, for nuclear-explosive devices.

Substituting a "possibility" for actuality is not justified by commendable zeal to control nuclear materials. While all grades of plutonium need management, the dangers of reactor-grade plutonium should not be exaggerated.

If their belief were valid that "reactor-grade plutonium can be used to make weapons at all levels of technical sophistication," then the public, Congress, and policy makers have been subject to an immense half-century fraud perpetrated by weapons designers.

I'm particularly troubled by their persistence with horizontal proliferation, which has made little worldwide headway, compared to the 100,000 warheads produced during the vertically proliferating Cold War. These warheads and their weapon-grade composition should be the immediate and engaging focus of our financial and technical policies to safeguard, contain, and demilitarize.