Nuclear Conversion Program is a Success
By WILLIAM H. MILLER
– uclear power’s resurgence in the United States is tied to a surprisingly effective program that is helping to make the world a safer place from nuclear weapons.
Known as the “megatons to megawatts” program, it has led to the elimination of huge stockpiles of nuclear-weapons materials, limiting access to these materials by rogue countries and terrorist groups.
Established 15 years ago by the U.S. and Russian governments, the megatons to megawatts accord has a single goal: It calls for the conversion of 500 metric tons of highly enriched, bomb-grade uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons into low-enriched uranium to be used at U.S. nuclear power plants to produce electricity.
The program has succeeded beyond all expectations. To date, 327 metric tons of Russia’s highly enriched uranium has been turned into nuclear fuel for use in U.S. commercial reactors, according to USEC, the corporation that is the agent for the U.S. government in the program. The conversion of that bomb-grade uranium is equivalent to the destruction of nearly 13,100 nuclear warheads that were aimed at obliterating U.S. cities. By 2013, when the program is scheduled to be completed, the equivalent of 20,000 Russian warheads will have been recycled into fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants.
Fifty percent of the fuel used in U.S. nuclear plants to generate electricity comes from Russian nuclear warheads. Use of this converted fuel has extended available uranium supplies and reduced the need to open new uranium mines. As a result, it has made nuclear power more competitive economically and helped to ensure its long- term viability.
This raises an important question: If nuclear fuel can be produced safely from bomb-grade uranium, why not make use of spent fuel stored at nuclear plants throughout the United States? The spent fuel – more than 55,000 metric tons – contains valuable uranium and plutonium that can be chemically reprocessed to produce a mixed-oxide fuel for use in generating more electricity. Such recycling was done in the United States until the mid-1970s, when President Jimmy Carter banned its use on grounds that the process posed a risk of nuclear proliferation. But France and Great Britain went their own ways and have continued to recycle spent fuel. France obtains 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and sells surplus electricity to neighboring countries. Great Britain is gearing up to build more nuclear plants.
The United States is finally reawakening to the value of spent- fuel recycling. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership calls for the resumption of recycling in the United States by 2020. Research on improved recycling technologies is under way.
With recycling, nuclear waste would be less of a problem. One repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada would have enough capacity to hold all of the waste from nuclear power plants and the defense program. There would be no need for additional repositories.
If recycling were revived, nations wanting to develop their own nuclear power programs would have access to nuclear fuel produced in the United States and other nations that have uranium enrichment capability, such as Russia, France and Great Britain. Through this international partnership, countries seeking to launch nuclear power programs would have no need to build their own enrichment or recycling facilities, reducing the likelihood of nuclear proliferation.
As former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, a non-proliferation expert, said recently in regard to the megatons to megawatts program, “Who would have thought this possible in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s or even in the early ’90s? It would have certainly been seen as a mountain too high to climb.” But we have climbed the mountain and reduced the risk from nuclear weapons in the world with nuclear power.
William Miller is a professor with the Nuclear Science & Engineering Institute at the University of Missouri.
Originally published by WILLIAM H. MILLER.
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