„Nuclear weapons with 3D-printing? Look at the warning signals“

Not printed: nuclear bomb (South Dakota Air and Space Museum) (Foto: Andrea ChurchCC BY 2.0)

A US-Court just stopped activist Cody Wilson to sell plans, how to make a weapon by 3D-printing. But how does 3D-printing change the way weapons are made – for example nuclear weapons? And what does that mean to export controls?

How can you prevent nuclear proliferation? Robert Kelley worked over 35 years in the US Department of Energy nuclear weapons complex. And he served as a Director of the nuclear inspections in Iraq in 1992 and again in 2001 at the IAEA. He’s newest publications are: Is three-dimensional (3D) printing a nuclear proliferation tool? and The Challenge of emerging technologies to non-proliferation efforts.


Lagebeschreibung: Is it possible in the future to build a nuclear weapon by 3D-printing?

Robert Kelley: It’s very unlikely that we can actually build a whole nuclear weapon with 3D-printing. You might be able to print some individual components. But if the question is, „could I print the whole at once?“ my answer is absolutely no.


Lagebeschreibung: And what about a gas centrifuge?

Robert Kelley: Centrifuges are even less likely. There are very few components in a centrifuge, that I can imagine 3D-printing. Fortunately the most critical and export controlled components are under stress. There are components that are not under stress, so you could build them by 3D-printing. But that would gain you no advantage over other methods of manufacturing. But trying to produce the rotor which stands at very high speed – I think it’s impossible. You definitely cannot print a whole gas centrifuge in one pass – all at once!

Lagebeschreibung: You’ve worked on controlling nuclear weapons. What’s necessary to do regarding 3D-printing?


Robert Kelley: You should identify the few places that I’ve noted like producing components out of beryllium, which is useful for a nuclear weapon, and make sure that export control people in the governments who looking at exports of both the beryllium powders for example and machines that could print them are noted. That would be important from a control point of view and it would be important from an intelligence point of view, that if you saw someone trying to procure beryllium powder and a machine doing 3D-printing of a hard material. Beryllium by itself probably cannot be 3D-printed but an alloy of beryllium with a little aluminium might be very straightforward. That should be a warning signal. But I don’t think it’s very likely. It’s just something you want to put on the list to keep the export control people well informed.

Lagebeschreibung: Is it easy to control? It’s dual-use-technology.

Robert Kelley: Yes, it is a dual-use-technology and for that reason there’s got to be a lot of legitimate commercial traffic. There might be indicators – for example beryllium is an extremely toxic material and so there might be modifications to a 3D-printing machine to use it with a dangerous material. I’ve mentioned in an article that one can print high explosives now. High explosives, of course, are very dangerous and there will be modifications if you’d want to make a 3D-printing machine safe. And the last thing is the powders themselve. Beryllium is not a very common material in international commerce. And so if someone orders beryllium powder I would say that should be a red flag to an export control person to say let’s look at that one carefully.

Interview: Dirk Eckert

A german version is here.


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