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Program to Use Russian Nukes for US Electricity Comes to an End 148

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the how-about-u.s.-nukes-now dept.
gbrumfiel writes "For the past two decades, about 10 percent of all the electricity consumed in the United States has come from Russian nuclear warheads. Under a program called Megatons to Megawatts, Russian highly-enriched uranium was pulled from old bombs and made into fuel for nuclear reactors. NPR News reports that the program concludes today when the last shipment arrives at a U.S. storage facility. In all nearly 500 tons of uranium was recycled, enough for roughly 20,000 warheads."
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Program to Use Russian Nukes for US Electricity Comes to an End

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  • by QuantumPion (805098) on Wednesday December 11, 2013 @02:41PM (#45662367)

    Our proven uranium reserves would last us over 200 years at current consumption;

    If we built fast reactors, we would have enough fuel, in the form of depleted uranium sitting around idle in barrels at enrichment plants, to supply the entire planet's energy for about 1000 years.

  • Re:And why ... (Score:5, Informative)

    by macpacheco (1764378) on Wednesday December 11, 2013 @02:48PM (#45662453)

    Specially since this is U-235 (the primary nuclear fuel currently in use on civilian nuclear power stations).
    Using U-235 for nuclear weapons is only common in first generation nuclear programs. You see, enriching uranium is a PITA (separating isotopes), while separating plutonium from anything else is soooo much easier (chemical separation).
    The trick is having a reactor that takes thatplentiful U-238 and hit it with a neutron to make Pu-239 (that nasty plutonium used in bombs). Plutonium isn't naturally occurring.
    If there are still US nuclear weapons that use U-235, those must be the oldest in the inventory.
    So, any association from that Russian nuclear fuel with nuclear bombs is only made by those without any nuclear physics knowledge.

    U-238 is 99,3% of natural uranium. It's the stuff that enrichment removes from the base material (producing depleted uranium).
    A holy grail of peaceful nuclear is breeding Pu-239 from U-238 on the fly inside the reactor and the fission it, but having this happen mixed with all kinds of nasty beta emitters that make using that Pu-239 for nuclear weapons another PITA. Beta radiation is the stuff that really kills (used to kill cancer cells in radiotheraphy), but inside the reactor it's not an issue.

    Not to mention that everybody that has significant stockpiles of Pu-239 want to destroy most of it ! Most nuclear reactors can't deal with nuclear fuel with lots of plutonium.

  • Re:And why ... (Score:5, Informative)

    by maxwell demon (590494) on Wednesday December 11, 2013 @04:11PM (#45663277) Journal

    Almost.

    U238 + n -> U239 (neutron capture)
    U239 -> Np239 + e (beta decay)
    Np239 -> Pu239 + e (beta decay)

  • Re:And why ... (Score:5, Informative)

    by careysub (976506) on Wednesday December 11, 2013 @07:36PM (#45665605)

    Specially since this is U-235 (the primary nuclear fuel currently in use on civilian nuclear power stations). Using U-235 for nuclear weapons is only common in first generation nuclear programs. You see, enriching uranium is a PITA (separating isotopes), while separating plutonium from anything else is soooo much easier (chemical separation).

    Your notion is about 50 years out of date - this was a common idea in the 1950s. The perfection of the gas centrifuge, available since the early 1960s completely changed the equation.

    Highly enriched uranium is much cheaper than plutonium gram for gram (the cost differential is more than 10:1). That "easy" chemical separation you speak of has to be done in a hot cell, and produces large amounts of highly radioactive waste, and requires first making uranium into fuel, then cooking it in an expensive reactor for months, and then more months of cooling. HEU these days simply takes slightly radioactive natural or low enriched uranium and sends it through a gas centrifuge cascade in a modest-sized warehouse giving you product easily converted to metal at the other end after several days later.

    Highly enriched uranium (aka HEU, your "U-235") is widely used in modern thermonuclear weapons. The secondary casing is made out of it, the secondary spark plug is likely made out of it, and perhaps half of the total yield of warhead is when the highly enriched uranium is fissioned by the flood neutrons from the thermonuclear burn. There is roughly ten times more HEU in a modern weapon than plutonium, which is only used for the primary (where the fact that it has a lower critical mass is very important).

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