02/21/2014 - 09:16

More megatons to megawatts

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in ...

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In December 2013, a ship carrying four cylinders of Russian uranium arrived in Baltimore. The uranium was headed for a plant owned by USEC, the privatized company formerly known as the United States Enrichment Corporation, where it will be used to make fuel assemblies for commercial nuclear power plants around the country. The December delivery was the final shipment in a successful 20-year-long nonproliferation program that turned highly enriched uranium (HEU) from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads into lower-grade uranium fuel that can be used to produce electricity.

If ever there was a win-win program, this was it. “This is the only time in history when disarmament was actually profitable,” Anton Khlopkov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies, told NPR. The 1993 HEU purchase agreement between the United States and Russian governments, known informally as Megatons to Megawatts, not only eliminated 500 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade uranium from Russian stockpiles, but also generated nearly 10 percent of all the electricity consumed in the United States (about half of all US nuclear power) during the past 15 years—a whopping total of around 7 trillion kilowatt-hours of energy.

Under the program, conceived and championed by MIT physicist Thomas L. Neff, the Russians “downblended” highly enriched uranium by diluting it with lower-grade uranium, and sold this mixture to the United States for $17 billion—a bargain for US ratepayers, even though Russia estimated earnings of $12 billion from the deal. Rosatom, the Russian Federation’s national nuclear corporation, plans to continue selling uranium to the United States beyond 2013, but at a much higher market price. In the meantime, US uranium concentrate production rose sharply in 2013, reaching its highest level since 1997, in part to offset the winding-down of Megatons to Megawatts.

Try this at home. Some experts have argued that even if Moscow were amenable to extending the Megatons to Megawatts program under generous terms, doing so would be wrongheaded because the risks associated with transporting highly enriched uranium to and from Russian processing facilities outweigh the benefits. However, there’s no reason that the United States can’t safely turn more of its own weapons into fuel, a process that would not have to involve large, risky shipments over such long distances.

While nearly half of the uranium burned in US power plants during the past 20 years came from decommissioned Russian weapons, only 5 percent came from American weapons. The United States currently has an estimated 7,700 intact warheads, including 3,000 that are retired and in storage. According to a comprehensive analysis by the Obama administration in 2013, the nation doesn’t need much more than 1,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons to maintain a “strong and credible” deterrent against the possibility of a nuclear attack.

In its Global Fissile Material Report 2013, the International Panel on Fissile Materials reports that the US stockpile of highly enriched uranium was estimated to be 595 tons at the end of 2012. By that time, approximately 141 tons had been downblended after being declared as surplus to US military needs. However, the downblending rate has slowed in recent years, and the Energy Department projects that downblending of the remaining surplus will take at least until 2050.

Your tax dollars at work? USEC, the only American company in the uranium enrichment business, made a profit on the Megatons to Megawatts program. The company won’t finish building its last fuel assemblies from Russian uranium until 2017, and this inventory is expected to last until 2020. Nevertheless, the company announced in December that it plans to file for bankruptcy in early 2014. That’s after receiving $257 million from the Energy Department over the past two years, money that was intended to help USEC continue its work on prototype uranium-enrichment centrifuges that could compete with Russian and European designs. The centrifuge effort is 12 years behind schedule and is now expected to cost a total of $6.5 billion—almost four times the original estimate. Meanwhile, demand for enriched uranium has declined with the closing of many nuclear reactors.

USEC and the Energy Department claim that a domestic enrichment capability is a must-have, because, by international agreement, the tritium used in US hydrogen bombs can only be produced in reactors burning American-made uranium. But if weapons reductions continue, additional tritium will not be needed.

Not enough. The past 20 years of nonproliferation accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at, and Megatons to Megawatts was, as US Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Rose Gottemoeller recently said, an “historic achievement.” It eliminated more than a fourth of the planet’s nuclear bomb fuel. “But it is not enough,” she said.

Unreported in the NPR story, and in many other media accounts of the program’s success, was the fact that an estimated 1,380 tons of highly enriched uranium remain in the global inventory, mostly in the hands of the United States and Russia. It’s unfortunate that so many reporters failed to ask hard questions about what comes next for this material.

NPR wrapped up its story by telling listeners to “feel good” when they turn on the lights. “Your bulb may be powered by what was once a bomb.” While that’s true, it’s cold comfort to listeners who understand that the United States and Russia still possess more than enough nuclear weapons to annihilate the planet. The media coverage, like the reductions themselves, is a good thing. But it is not enough.