Tuesday, November 10, 2009


This isn't really news, except to the New York Times: about half of the energy generated by nuclear reactors in the United States, ten percent of the overall electrical supply, comes from old bombs. It's been true for years.

In the late 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union had about 70,000 nuclear weapons. Now they're down to something in the 20,000 range. You've got to do something with those old ones. Just as a civilian nuclear fuel cycle can be used to produce bombs, so can bomb material be used in civilian nuclear reactors. The United States has been buying Russia's enriched uranium and making fuel elements from it.

Bombs contain plutonium, too. The issues there have been more complicated. First, the United States insisted on glassifying the plutonium with fission products so that it could be stored deep underground. Russia and the Soviet Union before it always saw plutonium as an energy resource, so the two countries argued for about a decade on what to do with the plutonium. It's not clear to me that this has been resolved; although the Times article sounds sanguine about progress on the Savannah River facility for plutonium decommissioning, there have been many ups and downs in that program, and more would not be surprising. The 34 tons of plutonium the article mentions has been the number for years.

So this is one more reason to move ahead on decommissioning nuclear weapons: to mine their energy resources.

Here's the strangest thing in the article.
Utilities have been loath to publicize the Russian bomb supply line for fear of spooking consumers: the fuel from missiles that may have once been aimed at your home may now be lighting it.
That's a powerful image that has been used before - swords to plowshares, remember? Seems to me it should soothe, rather than spook, consumers. There's an initial shock, but then it seems rather a good idea.

This inability to consider consumers as intelligent adults still plagues the nuclear industry. Since their beginnings, the attitude has been "leave it to the experts." As long as this attitude persists, the industry isn't going to have many successes.

No comments: