A nuclear reactor that can meet the energy needs of developing countries without the risk that they will use the by-products to make weapons is being developed by the US Department of Energy.

The aim is to create a sealed reactor that can be delivered to a site, left to generate power for up to 30 years, and retrieved when its fuel is spent. The developers claim that no one would be able to remove the fissile material from the reactor because its core would be inside a tamper-proof cask protected by a thicket of alarms.

Known as the small, sealed, transportable, autonomous reactor (SSTAR), the machine will generate power without needing refuelling or maintenance, says Craig Smith of the DoE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Conventional reactors pose a threat of proliferation because they have to be periodically recharged with fuel, which later has to be removed. Both steps offer operators the chance to divert fissile material to weapons programmes as is thought to have happened in North Korea and Iran.

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