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How About a Megatons To Megawatts Program For US Nuclear Weapons?

timothy posted about 2 months ago | from the hot-water-on-tap dept.

United States 146

Lasrick writes "Dawn Stover looks at the incredibly successful Megatons to Megawatts program, which turned dismantled Russian nuclear warheads into lower-grade uranium fuel that can be used to produce electricity. The 1993 agreement between the U.S. and Russia not only eliminated 500 tons of weapons-grade uranium, but generated nearly 10% of U.S. electricity consumption. The Megatons to Megawatts program ended in December, but Stover points out that the U.S. has plenty of surplus nuclear weapons that could keep the program going, without the added risk of shipping it over such huge distances. A domestic Megatons to Megawatts, if you will. This would be very cost effective and have the added benefit of keeping USEC, the only American company in the uranium enrichment field, in business."

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146 comments

Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (4, Interesting)

fruviad (5032) | about 2 months ago | (#46311253)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M... [wikipedia.org]

Should've done it years ago.

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311361)

Sorry, but no. Thorium reactors 'burn' thorium for fuel.
Putting uranium or plutonium in a thorium reactor would be much like mixing up diesel and gasoline in your engine.
I don't know specifically if it would fail to function, run terrible, or even damage the entire reactor, but no matter how you look at it, you don't want to put the wrong fuel in the reactor, especially when dealing with nuclear fission.

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311371)

Thorium reactors actually produce an isotope of uranium to burn.

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (2)

rubycodez (864176) | about 2 months ago | (#46311421)

plenty of thorium reactor designs can burn spent uranium fuel. as other poster pointed out, what thorium reactor burns is U-233

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (0)

Nerrd (1094283) | about 2 months ago | (#46311609)

No. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T... [wikipedia.org] Thorium reactors *burn* Thorium, and *produce* U-233.

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (5, Informative)

nojayuk (567177) | about 2 months ago | (#46312027)

No, proposed thorium breeder reactors like the LFTR breed Th-232 up into fissile U-233 and then fission that to produce energy and enough neutrons to continue the breeding cycle. The kickstarter fuel load with U-235 and Pu-239 initiates the breeding operation (hopefully, it's never been tested for real).

Breeding thorium has been done on a small scale in pebble-bed reactors using a small amount of thorium in the pebbles but relying on most of the fissiel fuel being U-235 to provide sufficient neutron flux to do the breeding which was not sustainable otherwise.

A worry with most of the LFTR designs is that commercial companies will have access to bomb-grade Pu-239 which can be chemically extracted from the kickstarter fuel load. MOX fuel for conventional PWRs has too much Pu-240 in the mix to build functional weapons from.

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311547)

Nope.
Most thorium reactor designs could operate with a decent percentage of U-235 and/or Pu-239 in their fuel mix.
In fact, those without a external neutron source usually *require* just that to sustain the Thorium breeding cycle at low output levels.

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (5, Informative)

macpacheco (1764378) | about 2 months ago | (#46311745)

Not true. Thorium reactors could run exclusively on U-235 long term. It would be stupid to run them long term on U-235, but possible. But for startup, that's just what is planned to do. Thorium reactors could be started with a mix of U-235, Pu-239, Pu-240 and U-233.
Th-232 is a fertile material, U-233 is made from Th-232 after the reactor is running.
Once the reactor is in full operation, it makes more U-233 than it consumes, hence a breeder. Not all reactors that run Thorium are breeders (make more U-233 from Thorium than it consumes U-233).
Little U-233 is available worldwide, USA stockpiles are less than enough to start 10 Thorium reactors (even the designs that need the least fissile material in operation). Thorium reactor designs that need a larger fissile inventory might consume that U-233 just to startup two reactors.
The real problem with thermal reactors is U-238 making Pu-239, and Pu-239 only fissioning 2/3 of the time with thermal spectrum neutrons. When Pu-239 don't fission it makes Pu-240 leading to Americium and Curium production, leading to eating away extra neutrons.
The problem is that U-238 -> Pu-239 -> Fission or Pu-240 cycle in the thermal spectrum makes only 1.9 neutrons for each 2 consumed.
But if you have a stockpile of Pu-239, it only takes one neutron to make 1.9 neutrons on average, so it could startup a Thorium LFTR, producing U-233 from Th-232, and whatever Pu-240, Am-241 and Curium is made is kept in the reactor until it fissions.

Perhaps you mean for a Thorium breeder reactor (that makes as much U-233 as it consumes, or a little more), shouldn't be fueled with U-235, since it's a rare isotope (hundreds of times more rare on earth than Th-232), so it's not a good idea to run a Thorium reactor with U-235 on purpose.

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (0)

LifesABeach (234436) | about 2 months ago | (#46312573)

This is great news. But has anyone considered what it would take to clean up this mess?

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (1)

macpacheco (1764378) | about 2 months ago | (#46312907)

What mess ?

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (1)

LifesABeach (234436) | about 2 months ago | (#46313625)

Radioactivity? I don't think there is any other method other than to pile a bunch of Boron on top of it.

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (1)

macpacheco (1764378) | about 2 months ago | (#46313739)

I spent 200 hours studying current nuclear technology reactors and proposed reactors.
Molten salt fueled reactors are wayyy safer that what we have.
But current reactors are safe, Fukushima was a 1960s design, Chernobyl was a copy (spied) of a USA design before the USA fixed a serious flaw (decades earlier).
Even current light/heavy water reactors are an order of magnitude safer than the reactors that suffered accidents in the past.
Nobody died from Fukushima, zero. No cancer cases also. There are some interesting videos of the US sailors suing the US Navy, and it look like a baseless suit (nothing to do with radiation).

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (1)

gatkinso (15975) | about 2 months ago | (#46312765)

Unfortunately, the promise of Thorium fuel cycle based nuclear power grid comes with an proliferation risk of atomic bombs based on U-233 (the US already tested n in the Teapot-MET shot, and it is thought that at least part of India's arsenal is uses U-233).

So... not very safe.

Re:Burn the Uranium in safe Thorium reactors... (1)

MtViewGuy (197597) | about 2 months ago | (#46313619)

Except for one thing though: you need much more uranium-233 to build a fission-style nuclear weapon than uranium-235. Needing more fissile material means a much heavier nuclear bomb, and makes it not very practical for ballistic missiles and you don't want a heavier bomb on today's jet combat planes.

Because 'Murica! (1, Insightful)

kelarius (947816) | about 2 months ago | (#46311259)

We couldn't possibly give up our strategic advantage in an area that has almost no usefulness in this period of time!

Because Anti-America (1)

cold fjord (826450) | about 2 months ago | (#46311385)

We couldn't possibly give up our strategic advantage in an area that has almost no usefulness in this period of time!

Tell it to the Chinese [washingtontimes.com] and Russians [thenewamerican.com] .

Re:Because 'Murica! (3, Insightful)

bonehead (6382) | about 2 months ago | (#46311443)

We couldn't possibly give up our strategic advantage in an area that has almost no usefulness in this period of time!

We could give up our strategic advantage, but it would be exceedingly stupid.

Weapons should be thought of as a form of insurance. In a perfect world, you'd never have to use it, but in the world we live in, it's foolish not to have it.

Re:Because 'Murica! (1)

John.Banister (1291556) | about 2 months ago | (#46311471)

But, as the missiles get more accurate, the bombs don't need as large a destruction radius, so there can be plenty of surplus Uranium burned without losing strategic advantage.

Re:Because 'Murica! (1)

bonehead (6382) | about 2 months ago | (#46311531)

You misunderstand the true value of weapons.

If you have to use a weapon, that means you didn't have a big enough one.

Much better to have a weapon that is big enough, and scary enough that you don't ever have to actually use it.

Re:Because 'Murica! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311571)

>Much better to have a weapon that is big enough, and scary enough that you don't ever have to actually use it.

And old and slow enough that they're no match for modern defense systems and not scary at all.

Re:Because 'Murica! (3, Insightful)

DexterIsADog (2954149) | about 2 months ago | (#46312441)

You misunderstand the true value of weapons.

If you have to use a weapon, that means you didn't have a big enough one.

Um, no. It's more likely that if you "have" to use a weapon, you already failed at something else that would have precluded the use, or threat, of force in the first place.

Re:Because 'Murica! (2)

Lord Kano (13027) | about 2 months ago | (#46312661)

It's more likely that if you "have" to use a weapon, you already failed at something else that would have precluded the use, or threat, of force in the first place.

Quite true. However, sometimes the thing that was failed was the attempt to convince someone else that you are sincere about being left alone.

LK

Re:Because 'Murica! (1)

bonehead (6382) | about 2 months ago | (#46313135)

Quite true. However, sometimes the thing that was failed was the attempt to convince someone else that you are sincere about being left alone.

Even more often, the "failure" was a hesitation to meet the unreasonable demands of an aggressor who wants you to relinquish possession of something valuable.

Violence is a two party game, you can't simply "choose" to never be involved in it.

What you can choose is whether or not you want to be the loser every time you are forced to participate.

Re:Because 'Murica! (1)

John.Banister (1291556) | about 2 months ago | (#46313121)

If you can kill the same 10 million people with a smaller bomb and a more accurate missile that you used to be able to kill with a larger bomb and a less accurate missile, your weapon isn't less scary. It's just easier to hide.

Indeeeeed! (1)

denzacar (181829) | about 2 months ago | (#46313187)

Because all your adversaries are completely logical and reasonable robots. Also, infallible. Just like you!
Nobody will EVER use such a weapon in anger, madness of through accident and lack of oversight.
I for one have never ever dropped a hammer on my foot, I'm sure that bureaucracies of the world are perfectly capable of not doing the same only with nukes.

After all... weapons of war and killing are actually tools of peace and love.
Every year people gather in Hiroshima in "thank god for nukes or many people might have died in an invasion" celebration.
Look how happy and peaceful [hiroshima-navi.or.jp] they are. What more proof would anyone need?

Re:Because 'Murica! (1)

rossdee (243626) | about 2 months ago | (#46311807)

Nuclear weapons don't work that way, You can't take some of the Uranium or Plutonium out and make a smaller yeild weapon.

In fact the warheads in the US strategic arsenal have Thermonuclear warheads (hydrogen bombs) with a small nuclear fission trigger. If you take out some of the fissile material in the trigger its not going to go boom at all.

Sherriff Bart (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311567)

We couldn't possibly give up our strategic advantage in an area that has almost no usefulness in this period of time!

We could give up our strategic advantage, but it would be exceedingly stupid.

Weapons should be thought of as a form of insurance. In a perfect world, you'd never have to use it, but in the world we live in, it's foolish not to have it.

Did you see Blazing Saddles? There's a scene where Sheriff Bart puts a gun to his head and threatens every one that he'll shoot the Sherriff and every one backs down - even though they hated him. That idiocy is the way I view our nuclear "deterrent"

That's what nuclear weapons are: suicides. Because threatening assured nuclear destruction will destroy ourselves; meaning, our nuclear arms policy is a bluff. It's like saying, "You attack us, well we'll commit suicide and take you with us! What are you going do?!"

And use them on China or N. Korea even IF they attacked first? The Walton Family (Wal*Mart) would never allow our government to hurt their business.

Re:Sherriff Bart (3, Insightful)

bonehead (6382) | about 2 months ago | (#46311627)

If my destruction is already determined, and there is no other way out, then having a way to convince the aggressor that he'll be going down with me is a perfectly valid tactic. Really, it's the only valid tactic on some situations.

Re:Because 'Murica! (0)

prefec2 (875483) | about 2 months ago | (#46311671)

The problem with people who have nuclear weapons is that they tend to bully around in other areas. The US would act much more to its actual proportions if it were not backed by nuclear weapons. The same goes for all the other jerks with nuclear weapons.

Beside that. The US could easily dismantle have of their arsenal without jeopardizing their present strategic
"advantage".

Am I the only one who is surprised? (1)

StripedCow (776465) | about 2 months ago | (#46311303)

Given all the governmental fuck-ups lately, I'm surprised we haven't seen any missiles being launched inadvertently.

Re:Am I the only one who is surprised? (1)

cold fjord (826450) | about 2 months ago | (#46311401)

They probably continue to apply lessons learned long ago [yarchive.net] . Unfortunately technology screw-ups are often easier to fix than policy screw-ups, or "you have to pass the bill to see what's in it," and we can only guess what will happen.

Re:Am I the only one who is surprised? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311457)

Given the track record for fuck-ups, the only reasonable explanation for zero accidental missile fires is that none of them are (or ever were) actually operational.

Re:Am I the only one who is surprised? (2)

denzacar (181829) | about 2 months ago | (#46313325)

Well... we're really not supposed to look. Nothing to see here, move along. [wikipedia.org]

All is fine. After all... almost no one dies in those accidents even when they do happen.

September 18, 1980 â" At about 6:30 p.m., an airman conducting maintenance on a USAF Titan-II missile at Little Rock Air Force Base's Launch Complex 374-7 in Southside (Van Buren County), just north of Damascus, Arkansas, dropped a socket from a socket wrench, which fell about 80 feet (24 m) before hitting and piercing the skin on the rocket's first-stage fuel tank, causing it to leak. The area was evacuated. At about 3:00 a.m., on September 19, 1980, the hypergolic fuel exploded. The W53 warhead landed about 100 feet (30 m) from the launch complex's entry gate; its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material. An Air Force airman was killed and the launch complex was destroyed.

And then... there are things like this, [latimes.com] which is not on the list above because it was not a nuclear accident.
Only a regular accident and a malfunction that still required the military to try to stop a nuclear launch by parking an armored car on top of the silo.

And these were just misplaced. [washingtonpost.com]

What % are HEU? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311309)

I believe that the US phased out almost all highly enriched uranium weapons in the 50s. HEU is touchy stuff and aside from some gun type prototype mortar and artillery shell devices plutonium makes more sense. Think of HEU as nitroglycerin, more prone to criticality accidents and plutonium as TNT insensitive and safe except in exceptional circumstances such as explosive lensing.

Re:What % are HEU? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311407)

Probably pretty low % of US nukes are HEU, the oldest current nuclear bomb (B83) which is being phased out is a plutonium device:
http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Weapons/B83.html

There are 2,700 retired, but still intact, nuclear warheads, but it is not stated what design they are:
http://bos.sagepub.com/content/70/1/85.full.pdf

Just for curiosity sake, what are the processes available for using the plutonium from modern US weapons to generate energy?

FTA, there is a current US stockpile of 595 tons of HEU (1,380 tons globally) that is being downmixed to use in nuclear power generation, which is projected to last until 2050.

Re:What % are HEU? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311565)

Just for curiosity sake, what are the processes available for using the plutonium from modern US weapons to generate energy?

MOX fuel, and... that's about it.

From who? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311321)

...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.

A THOUSAND warheads are needed as a deterrent? I would think a few dozen at most in case China gets a bit bold. But there's a few more decades of wealth transfer from the US Middle Class to China, so it's not going to happen.

A couple is more than enough for N. Korea. France and England won't use theirs ever - let alone on us. And Israel, well, bombing the US would be like bombing themselves.

And Russia? Please. They're having too great of a time now NOT being a World power which is a lesson we in the US should learn.

And as far as terrorists are concerned, retaliation would be exactly what they want.

Re:From who? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311451)

The central idea behind Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is that any strategic use of a nuclear weapon would result in an overwhelming response, killing billions.
This simple concept of a guaranteed overwhelming response, and counter response (that is the mutual part) has prevented any world power from attempting to use nukes in the field

If countries only had a limited number of nukes (lets say hundreds, not tens... most people greatly over estimate their strength), then they would be more prone to use them in sticky situations (stemming the tide of Chinese soldiers in Korean conflict, wiping out the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam Police Action, etc...) and would result in a hell of a lot more background radiation and likely hood of ongoing global conflict

This is the situation that the US and USSR set up at the end of WW2 and it will take a lot of mutual trust to move away from it

The math of MAD ... (1)

perpenso (1613749) | about 2 months ago | (#46311757)

A THOUSAND warheads are needed as a deterrent? I would think a few dozen at most in case China gets a bit bold.

Its not about the number of missiles that you start the day with, its about the number of missiles that are left after you have been hit in a first strike.

The reason for such a large number of warheads is survivability. No weapon is 100% effective. However lets assume a hypothetical weapon that destroys its target 99% of the time. If this weapon is used to attack 1,000 warheads then 10 warheads will survive and be available for a counterattack. This is the mathematics of MAD. No matter how badly you are hit you are still unthinkably dangerous.

Re:The math of MAD ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311967)

the number of missiles that are left after you have been hit in a first strike.

Approaches zero, as anything on standby has been launched over half an hour ago.

Re:The math of MAD ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312433)

the number of missiles that are left after you have been hit in a first strike.

Approaches zero, as anything on standby has been launched over half an hour ago.

Actually no. While your scenario of launch while enemy missiles are inbound is more likely, the math of MAD is that even if your first strike is successful it will not be enough. That the most wildly optimistic scenario (from the first launch attacker's perspective) will not be enough. That first strike missiles that fail to target accurately or fail to detonate will leave sufficient missiles for an intolerable counterstrike.

Re:The math of MAD ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312633)

Also, you are not limited to ICBM's. you also have bombers in the air, surface ships with cruise missiles and submarines with their own capability to continuing strikes for months along with plans to move the remainders of the airforce to alternative sites to continue to support air strikes and defensive cover

Throw in the calculated rain of radiation, burning of forests and resulting nuclear winter and it is a long hard slog for any survivors.
The relevant quote is:
“I dunno,” he said, “but in the war after the next war, sure as Hell, they’ll be using spears!”

Re:The math of MAD ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312819)

While the US had a more balanced approach the USSR was much more dependent upon ICBMs, less so on bombers and subs. Hence their heightened sensitivity to anti-ballistic missile programs. ICBMs with 20-30 minute flight times were far more vulnerable the SLBMs (sub launched) with their 3-5 minute flight times.

Re:The math of MAD ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312179)

I don't know about "survives a first strike," but you're certainly correct if you say "survives countermeasures."

Re:The math of MAD ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312447)

I don't know about "survives a first strike," but you're certainly correct if you say "survives countermeasures."

When MAD was developed there was not much in the way of countermeasures.

Re:The math of MAD ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312673)

Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems were already in development in the 50's
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Nike#Nike_Zeus

The ABM treaty was signed in '72
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Ballistic_Missile_Treaty

President Reagan blew the ABM treaty off in '83 with the pre-announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)
SDI was itself a con-game and threw the USSR into debt spiral as they attempted to outspend the US on systems
More recently, development of hyper-sonic ABM systems (against an imaginary Nork threat) and installation of Euro ABM systems (against imaginary Iranian threat) has further destabilized the balance of MAD

Re:The math of MAD ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312789)

MAD was a product of the 60s and 70s. ABM systems were not effective in that era, similar systems barely worked by the 1991 Gulf War. The ABM treaty of the 70s was largely to halt development in that area and prevent effective ABM systems. Reagan reversed that in the 80s and SDI was largely R&D not an effective system. Its debatable if we have an effective system today.

No we should not (-1, Offtopic)

bazmail (764941) | about 2 months ago | (#46311329)

No. We should maintain our advantage over other nations. Especially China. After all China is probably building up a giant stockpile of nukes right now as we speak!!


There is no CND/peace/disarmament/Megatons-To-Megawatts movement on China, There is only propaganda and hatred for the US. So I say the US should build more nukes and point them at China, keep the Chinese at bay. IF we get rid of out nukes the Chinese will see us as weak and eventually start claiming US pacific outlying territories as its own as part of its new aggressive/assertive bully persona.

Re:No we should not (5, Informative)

The Grim Reefer (1162755) | about 2 months ago | (#46311445)

No. We should maintain our advantage over other nations. Especially China. After all China is probably building up a giant stockpile of nukes right now as we speak!!.

I realize this is /., so to rtfa is just crazy talk. But I did skim through it. We currently have 3000 retired warheads that are simply sitting in storage decaying. These aren't sitting on top of missiles. Or even being maintained. They are costing taxpayers who knows how much money to sit in a building somewhere. Since the cost of enriching this stuff beyond what is needed to generate power has alread done. This seems like an even bigger waste to me. As they would probably have to reprocess it to use in a weapon again anyhow.

Re:No we should not (1)

perpenso (1613749) | about 2 months ago | (#46311789)

As they would probably have to reprocess it to use in a weapon again anyhow.

The Pentagon's logic is probably that reprocessing would be less expensive that creating new material should they desire new warheads.

Re:No we should not (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46313537)

The Pentagon's logic is probably that reprocessing would be less expensive that creating new material should they desire new warheads.

That and we have signed treaties saying we won't create new material (but I think reprocessing old material is an allowed loophole)

Re:No we should not (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46313679)

The Pentagon is right; the US shut down its last nuclear warhead proction facility over 20 years ago, and has no capability to manufacture new weapons anymore.

http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_weapons_and_global_security/solutions/us-nuclear-weapons/us-nuclear-weapons-facilities.html

Old warheads must be maintained, as we can no longer make new ones.

doubtful. (1)

Dzimas (547818) | about 2 months ago | (#46311331)

Sadly, the military will strongly object, claiming they must retain the ability to annihilate civilization 50 or 60 times over. "To protect us."

Re:doubtful. (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311397)

The thing about nukes and MAD is that it is counterintuitive. To have peace in a world with nukes you actually need more than 1x the amount required to have a robust counterstrike. When nuclear disarmament reaches so called reasonable levels say UK,France, China levels the danger is actually greater since you slip below the megadeath that has kept chemical weapons and nukes deeply inside national pockets for almost 100 years. As long as there is a superpower who is not worried about a decapitation strike actually working there is little incentive to have an itchy trigger finger and common sense gets a chance to work.
You still saw some chem weapons in places like Yemen civil war by Egypt where there was no threat of a counterstrike or in Iran/Iraq where Iran didn't have the capacity.
Nukes are only safe when held in safely large and well dispersed numbers by a powerful central government facing a similar opponent with sufficient arsenal making a decapitation strike unrealistic. The only other safe option is strictly verified 100% planetary disarmament.

Umm no (1)

nbritton (823086) | about 2 months ago | (#46311335)

Do you have any idea how much it takes to create weapons grade uranium? Umm no.

Re:Umm no (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311383)

Do you have any idea how much it takes to create weapons grade uranium? Umm no.

Do you have any idea how much it takes to secure said weapons grade uranium from the world's nutjobs, hell bent on getting their hands on it? Umm no.

And yes, it's a shame we must protect ourselves from ourselves in this way, but ultimately there is a great cost in keeping it around. It will be a great shame when we discover a decade from now that a warp drive is best fueled by weapons grade uranium.

Re:Umm no (1)

Justpin (2974855) | about 2 months ago | (#46312231)

Erm no? UK Nuclear weapons were armed using a bicycle lock key. The base which they used to be stored on had very little security, as numerous people managed to fly over it (it had unrestricted airspace) and was not patrolled heavily seeing as protesters tended to walk right in through the front gate. We're not alone of course..... I've inadvertently entered secure zones in Kazahstan, set up my tent and driven away in the morning without being bothered.

Re:Umm no (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312261)

>Do you have any idea how much it takes to secure said weapons grade uranium from the world's nutjobs, hell bent on getting their hands on it? Umm no.

Yes. It's actually quite easy and cheap. The expensive part is in the radiation monitoring, but physical security for something like this (that does not ever need to be used) is trivially easy.

Russians sold it, company declared bankruptcy. (3, Interesting)

HornWumpus (783565) | about 2 months ago | (#46311393)

Russians got stiffed.

I know a lady who worked for the company at the time.

She also got stiffed to the tune of 10K un-reimbursed travel expenses.

But nothing like the Ruskys. Who learned the hard way about western bankruptcy laws.

BTW the company owner is still wanted in Russia, but what he did is not illegal in the USA, so no extradition.

Re:Russians sold it, company declared bankruptcy. (1)

mister_playboy (1474163) | about 2 months ago | (#46312807)

Any sources for this? I don't see any mention of MTs to MWs in the various articles about the bankruptcy or any mention of the Russians as creditors.

Massively wasteful (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311431)

To take highly enriched U235 or Plutonium, that has cost 100k's per kg to produce, and convert it to a lower grade fuel. Even if you don't like nuclear weapons there are myriad potential future non-military uses that may crop up that will need highly enriched fuels, like:

Nuclear interplanetary rockets, Space nuclear power reactors, nuclear aircraft, trains,trucks, tractors, earthmovers, and (less likely) nuclear ships, where weight is critical or small size for shielding or safe containment in event of a crash is critical. We are going to run out of fossil fuel eventually and will still need high density power sources for transportation and primary production.

In the case of aircraft, nuclear power may offer the only long term solution for transporting billions of wealthy future-humans around the world at the high speeds they will demand without fucking up the stratosphere like any combustion based propulsion does.

They already were, as part of the first program. (4, Interesting)

tlambert (566799) | about 2 months ago | (#46311455)

They already were, as part of the first program. US HEU was also converted, mostly from stocks, since the U.S. primarily uses Plutonium bombs, both as fission warheads, and as triggers for fusion warheads.

Addressing the suggestion itself:

The HEU supply available from weapons is now too low to deal with demands of the power industry, which is why the program came to the negotiated close that it did in the first place.

The U.S. generally could deal with both the fuel availability problem and the Plutonium weapons "problem" by:

(1) fuel reprocessing, which was disallowed by executive order of then-president Jimmy Carter, This would solve the "nuclear waste" problem at the same time, as it's not actually "waste", it's actually "unreprocessed nuclear fuel".

(2) use of Plutonium reactors which could utilize said Plutonium in the first place (which would imply breeder/fast breeder reactors, which the U.S. doesn't build due to it's non-proliferation stance, which appears to be successful, since North Korea... er... wait...

(3) another START treaty involving both Russia and China, so that the warhead reductions would be mutual. The current number of warheads is approximately those needed to implement the Brookings Institute's M.A.D. policy in the first place, since you pretty much have to drop a warhead within 100m of a hardened target to ensure the destruction of the target, and there are that many hardened targets. Nuclear weapons aren't magical in their ability to destroy -- in fact, the cluster bombs and fuel-air explosives we've been using in Iraq and Afghanistan have considerably more explosive power than tactical nuclear weapons.

So in all, the proposal is unworkable until you reverse a U.S. fuel reprocessing policy set by executive order, reverse a U.S. reactor technology policy set by executive order, and then engage in arms reductions talks with people who are currently not on very good speaking terms with us due to recent foreign policy decisions.

Re:They already were, as part of the first program (2)

nojayuk (567177) | about 2 months ago | (#46311597)

President Carter's reprocessing ban was in fact overturned by President Reagan. It costs money, lots of it, to reprocess spent fuel and the money to build commercial reprocessing plants wasn't forthcoming until about fifteen years ago when DoE funding was advanced to build a MOX fuel fabrication plant in South Carolina. The pricetag is now $5 billion, the plant is still unfinished and there are no confirmed customers for its MOX fuel in the US despite, it is claimed, generous subsidies. As far as I know there are no commercial reactors using MOX with recycled plutonium in the US at the moment.

Breeder reactors can't earn their way simply producing plutonium fuel other than for military purposes as cost-no-object operations. They need to generate electricity too and the operational experience of breeders over the past few decades is that they are not reliable and cost-effective to run especially these days when fracked gas-fired power generators can deliver electricity wholesale to the grid for about 3 cents/kWh. The French Super-Phenix breeder was intended to produce 1.2GW of electricity but it suffered problems and delays and was eventually shut down in part due to economic factors. Other breeders have had similar problems over the decades.

As for the START process it can take a decade or more to get something both countries can agree to -- President Obama signed off on the latest START agreement but it was begun by President Bush after the groundwork had been laid in President Clinton's term. The US (and Russia too) have to consider there are other unfriendly nuclear powers in existence today such as China with limited stocks of weapons but with intercontinental range. America's ready-for-use stockpile of about 2,000 deliverable warheads has to be able to deter more than Russia.

Re:They already were, as part of the first program (1)

phantomfive (622387) | about 2 months ago | (#46311625)

As for the START process it can take a decade or more to get something both countries can agree to -- President Obama signed off on the latest START agreement but it was begun by President Bush after the groundwork had been laid in President Clinton's term. The US (and Russia too) have to consider there are other unfriendly nuclear powers in existence today such as China with limited stocks of weapons but with intercontinental range. America's ready-for-use stockpile of about 2,000 deliverable warheads has to be able to deter more than Russia.

This is a crucial thing to remember......any nuclear weapons strategy that ignores China is ignoring the reality of the modern world. It's not just Russia and the US anymore.

Re:They already were, as part of the first program (0)

tlambert (566799) | about 2 months ago | (#46311755)

The French Super-Phenix breeder was intended to produce 1.2GW of electricity but it suffered problems and delays and was eventually shut down in part due to economic factors. Other breeders have had similar problems over the decades.

We should come right out and say that the economic factors leading to the shutdown were largely driven by Greenpeace, and that the economic factors in most use of nuclear energy projects are driven by political, rather than engineering issues.

Re:They already were, as part of the first program (3, Informative)

nojayuk (567177) | about 2 months ago | (#46311823)

Ummm, no. The economic factor for Super-Phenix shutting down was that it was an engineering prototype that pushed the envelope a bit too far in various directions. It broke in interesting ways, some due to the liquid sodium coolant, some because of the very intense neutron flux in a very small volume. The fact that the Greens fired a few RPG-7s at it in its early days had little to do with its eventual shutdown. This is La Belle France, remember -- see what they did to the Rainbow Warrior for what they think of Greenpeace.

The folks pushing next-generation breeders such as the assorted LFTRs, travelling-wave and other IFRs and the like have learned from the failures of the early breeder designs but it's likely they will run into other whoopsies themselves as they try to run productively for decades on end at 5 cents/kWh.

Re:They already were, as part of the first program (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312365)

While I don't think Super-Phenix was a ever going to be a success in making money by generating power. It was never given a chance to succeeded and prove it self, most of its months of inactivity where due to political opposition and administrative problems created by that opposition. Am guessing things like it took five months to get the okay to order the parts we needed six months ago and the manufacture has since gone bankrupt and we need to find and approve a new source who will also face political pressure not to take the contract. Yeah, isn't science fun. Finally, It wasn't restarted due to court order and political opposition. Yes, there were technical problems but it was an envelope pushing experimental design and just as they appeared to have been fixed; it was never allowed to restart(I believe the final shutdown was actually for maintenance.) In short the anti-nuclear crowd was truly terrified of Super-Phenix because it threatened their world view. If Super-Phenix proved that a breeder could be made to run commercially it would open a flood gate of nuclear plants by reducing in one of the biggist problems with nuclear power: waste. In short they had to put all their might behind shutting it down or risk loosing the war.

One thing I will say against the plant was that heavy snow fall caused structural damage...

Re:They already were, as part of the first program (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312305)

It's about the $$$.

Nobody does "waste reprocessing" because that costs you equivalent of $120/lb uranium from the mine. Since uranium from the mine is $50-$60 on some contracts now, why would you spend 2x as much on fuel?

It costs peanuts to store current "waste". There is simply not that much of it. People that say current "waste" is a problem are ignorant of the future need for such fuel and of what that "waste" represents.

Finally, plutonium bombs are predominantly Pu-238, which is rather stable and very expensive to produce with any purity. So burning it in reactors is A LOT of money "wasted". The MBAs at the Pentagon would have a heart attack and they lobby vehemently to store unused highly pure plutonium instead of disposing it in reactors.

Yes, HEU was mostly converted because it is reasonably cheap to make and not part of any strategic stockpiles.

PS. Personally, I would prefer that the Plutonium be disposed of in reactors. We do not need nuclear weapons in this world. But we sure need clean nuclear power instead of ever increasing *rates* of carbon emission.

Re:They already were, as part of the first program (3, Informative)

zippthorne (748122) | about 2 months ago | (#46312559)

Personally, I would prefer that Plutonium be reserved for RTGs for space power. Outside of the inner solar system, solar-powered probes just don't cut it.

Re:They already were, as part of the first program (2)

symbolset (646467) | about 2 months ago | (#46312631)

This is a different type of Plutonium. Not the he same thing at all.

Re:They already were, as part of the first program (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312793)

the plutonium 238 used in thermal reactors is a side effect of refining plutonium 239 for fissile material
We are running out of pu-238 because we are not making lots of pu239

Re:They already were, as part of the first program (1)

amorsen (7485) | about 2 months ago | (#46313409)

in fact, the cluster bombs and fuel-air explosives we've been using in Iraq and Afghanistan have considerably more explosive power than tactical nuclear weapons.

There is no sensible need to have tactical nuclear weapons. They do nothing for MAD, since they are not all that destructive, and they just encourage proliferation.

FUKUSHIMA HELLO!!!??? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311559)

Is anybody even vaguely aware of the radiation coming over in the Pacific Ocean?

Re:FUKUSHIMA HELLO!!!??? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46313425)

No. Well, not here at Slashdot. Here you will only find science types who are locked into the problem solving state of mind. They only think about the technical challenges involved. They literally can not think about the consequences of their actions. Their brain chemistry does not have that function. They will never admit to being at fault for the death and suffering caused by the release of radioactive material into the environment.

You will often hear them saying things like: "Don't blame us for the radiation leaks. The technology we invented was perfectly sound. If there were no earthquakes or tsunamis or terrorists or people who make mistakes on the job, nuclear power would work fine just like we designed it too. No, we don't know how to clean up radioactive material after it has been created and released. That's a really difficult problem that does not appear to have a solution, so we never bothered working on it. Besides, the singularity will come along by then and we'll all be robots so the natural environment and life on earth won't matter."

This misses the point of the initial program (2)

Karmashock (2415832) | about 2 months ago | (#46311633)

The megatons to megawatts program was put in place because the USSR had fallen apart and the existing nuclear stockpiles of the old Soviet Union were in the hands of increasingly suspect generals in an increasingly corrupt and desperate situation.

It was in that context that the US offered to buy the nuclear fuel and give Russia money.

Compared to today... The US for all its troubles is not on the brink of civil war. Our nuclear weapons are not in danger of falling into the hands of terrorists.

So the program has no point.

Re:This misses the point of the initial program (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46311793)

Compared to today... The US for all its troubles is not on the brink of civil war. Our nuclear weapons are not in danger of falling into the hands of terrorists.

So the program has no point.

Not the same reason is not the same thing as not point at all.

Re:This misses the point of the initial program (2)

DarkOx (621550) | about 2 months ago | (#46311879)

The Practice was never about economical source of nuclear feel as you say. It was to avoid a security nightmare where there would be large quantities of un accounted for nuclear weapons, and ideally to prop up the Russian Federation at the same time, least it become a failed state. Failure certainly did look possible in the early 90s.

Re:This misses the point of the initial program (1)

Karmashock (2415832) | about 2 months ago | (#46313835)

It was economical for the Russians. It was security for the US.

We paid them for the uranium. If it were security on both sides they would have not wanted the money.

We paid them. It was economical for them.

We need the fuel! Other factors at play (0)

bussdriver (620565) | about 2 months ago | (#46312077)

The USA was probably the richest in uranium on earth. Now we have none, it's all gone except for a negligible amount in the grand canyon and the public is opposed to destroying grand canyon to get at it. The USA imports the stuff today.

Yes, we do process it for others; apparently, just a single corporation does, so it's not all ending up used in our own nation. We've sold it for power and weapons for other nations. I'm sure somebody is making a billion being the middleman between India and Pakistan in a nuclear rivalry the US helped create...

Getting the USSR to lessen the ridiculous amounts they had was a major motivation but we didn't need to cut ours down so much in order to do that; we re-purposed our own while decommissioning many of our weapons as well. That wasn't really necessary; like I said, there were other motives besides just the security of Russia.

Re:We need the fuel! Other factors at play (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312703)

Easily dis proven:
"Uranium mining in the United States produced 4.8 million pounds of uranium concentrate in 2013, the largest amount since 1997"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium_mining_in_the_United_States

With mines in 21 states, it is hard to imagine the scenario that you state

Re:This misses the point of the initial program (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312109)

Our nuclear weapons are not in danger of falling into the hands of terrorists.

Israel?

Re:This misses the point of the initial program (1)

Karmashock (2415832) | about 2 months ago | (#46313831)

We have never given nuclear weapons to Israel. And the Israelis are very far from terrorists in any case.

What about the Israelis? (1)

jafac (1449) | about 2 months ago | (#46311657)

Don't they have surplus nuclear warheads? Or do you think they're going to use them all?

No shortage of reactor-grade uranium (1)

Animats (122034) | about 2 months ago | (#46312337)

There's no shortage of reactor-grade uranium in the US. U.S. Enrichment is planning a bankruptcy due to lack of demand. URENCO's centrifuge plant in New Mexico is in full operation. New centrifuge plants are orders of magnitude cheaper to run than the old gaseous-diffusion plants like K-25 at Oak Ridge. They're also much smaller; K-25 had several mile-long buildings, while URENCO's plant is about the size of two Walmarts.

How about just the bit about the Megawatts (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312501)

Leave my fusion bombs alone.

Reduce, reuse, recycle (1)

symbolset (646467) | about 2 months ago | (#46312607)

We still have many tons of spent fuel to recycle. About enough to power the nation for 500 years.

could also be an pretext to keep up the production (1)

steve.cri (2593117) | about 2 months ago | (#46312721)

It is tempting to put that nasty stuff to a civilian use, but such a program could also be an pretext to keep up the production of weapons-grade fissile material. When conservative politicians in the 1970ies were pushing to arm West Germany with its own nuclear weapons, one of the things they did was having a breeder reactor built (thankfully it never was completed). Such a thing should definitely be avoided.

Why Be Stingy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312883)

Why stop at only 4 melted reactors poisoning a whole ocean, a couple of countries, and half of the atmosphere? With numbers 5 and 6 just waiting on the sidelines. The more the merrier! After all, a couple of dozen reactors in the US alone are similar to the ones that blew. Many others are on fault lines, or more exposed to flooding and other catastrophes than they were supposed to be. And all of them leak 'just a little bit'.

Besides, sinkholes, once weaponized, are much more terrifying than those things.

Malleus Meteorum (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46312891)

Never let a good hammer go to waste. They should use them to nuke every earth-grazing asteroid that gets too close. And brighten the skies with their glittering ashes. What could go wrong?

potential use of special nuclear materials ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46313841)

As a former both commercial and government nuclear worker now "stuck" working at a dirt-burner because of federal and state government regulatory mis-management, it remains my professional opinion that it is PURE political deliberate pig-ignorance which prevents what General President Eisenhower attempted to begin; Atoms for Peace.
As a university degreed STEM graduate, it remains my opinion that the risk of a "Satan Bug" is much greater than ANY terroristic use of special nuclear materials in ANY form. All the rest of this discussion is Gilbert and Sullivan, full of noise and fury - signifying NOTHING!

No. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#46313843)

These programs all all about keeping nuclear version beta alive.
The fact remains that these reactors are unsafe, decrepid, and inefficient.

Even ignoring the cost of dealing with the waste under normal operation, they are not cost effective.

They simply failed to deliver nuclear's promise of cheap power. For a while they were part of a system able to deliver more kWh to the grid per Ton of earth dug up than carbon fuels, but then the all the rich deposits mined out. We've already passed peak Uranium.

Programmes like this are an attempt to avoid the costs of decommissioning these plants for just a little longer, until it can become someone else's problem.
In reality, all plants deriving their fuel from U ought to be decommissioned ASAP.

Note well that LFTR and Thorium fueled reactors do not have this problem. Even at normal background levels, LFTR's are fuel efficient enough that grinding and leeching random rock from anyway is energy efficient, in that you recover much more energy than the extraction process takes to run.

Why are U reactors so bad? Because even before they are fuelled, only 0.7% of natural U is useable fuel, and after the fuel is "depleted", usually much less than 6% of that has actually been consumed.

The reason it can no longer be used, is because it is a solid, and the waste products have no way to escape. These waste products accumulated until they consume enough neutrons to prevent the fuel from sustaining a chain reaction safely. Attempting to increase criticality in the presence of these "reactor poisons" is what blew up Chernobyl.

Thorium, on the other hand, is 100% fertile. Almost all (arbitrarily close to 100%) of it can eventually be converted in an LFTR to U-233 and then consumed. The molten salt form of the fuel makes reprocessing easy, allowing the waste products to be continually removed, and the fuel continually refreshed.

But we couldn't have Thorium first, because we absolutely needed to develop natural U fueled reactors first, in order to kickstart Thorium breeders.

Then there is the misguided idea of breeding natural U-238 into P-239. This is a very bad idea: P undergoes criticality much more easily than U, and so is only good for bombs. The original Th->U breeder program was scrapped to focus on U->P breeders, but the experiment failed - it was simply too unstable to keep under safe control, and to work at all, it required a huge inventory of P to work, so it was also likely to result in a massive mess if it fell over.

LFTR's on the other hand, are unconditionally stable. They automatically slow down when they overheat, resulting in intrinsically safe operation. They also contain no water, and hence do not generate quantities of chemically explosive gasses such as what exploded to breach Fukushima.

The biggest problem is that basically none of the engineering wisdom accrued from building and operating U reactors is applicable to LFTR's.
They have different hazards. They're not pressurized, but they must handle radioactive and highly toxic gasses in large quantities. They can't fail by melting down, but they run at red-hot temperatures all the time. They don't need pressure containment vessels, but they do need attached automatic fuel reprocessing plants.

They don't need the fuel to be manually handled at all - it's all piped around, but they do need their plants to be maintained.

The special metal used for the pipe will last much longer than the pipes in U reactors, yet it must be made of an expensive Nickel alloy.

The only true remaining problem, is that no-one yet knows exactly what shape those pipes should be. Graphite is needed in the core to moderate the neutrons, yet graphite pipes are known to swell and then contract with heavy neutron flux. Perhaps the moderating carbon should be in liquefied form too? It could be ground into a powder and mixed into a separate molten salt, and then possibly pumped through the core separately. This would be an efficient way to harvest heat from the core, as the moderator is what cops it the most, as well as completely avoiding the swelling problem.

Who knows.

Earth needs to pull up its collective sleeves and get this solved. Or else we'll be at each other's throats for the dwindling slice of carbon fuel.

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