On January 16, 2007, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset the hands of their famous Doomsday Clock, moving it forward from 11:53 to 11:55. According to their analysis of the world’s current political and environmental situation, we are now a figurative “five minutes till midnight”, with midnight equating to the end of the world as we know it.
The two main dangers driving the decision are the increased risk of nuclear war and the increased risk of dramatic and deadly global climate change. In the view of the scientists that sit on the BAS board, the spread of nuclear weapons technology to nations like Iran and North Korea, combined with the continued existence of incompletely secured nuclear weapons and nuclear material in various nations in the world poses a dire situation that has to be addressed. They also believe that human activities are causing ever increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and that these gases are causing the world’s temperature to increase past a tipping point where the rate of increase will accelerate.
When I read about the BAS action and heard the press conference at which the announcement was discussed, my immediate reaction was a desire to intervene in the discussion with a possible technical solution that just might gain acceptance as more people think about it.
As many Atomic Insights readers know, a large portion of the commercial nuclear fuel supplies for the US during the past half dozen years or so have come from former Russian nuclear weapons that have been mixed – “blended down” – with natural uranium to form commercial grade fuel that is about 5% Uranium 235 (the weapons stuff) and 95% U-238 (the isotope that represents about 99.3% of natural uranium.)
What if we really put our minds to the idea of a vast reduction in nuclear weapons stockpiles and blended down as much U-235 as possible, thus making a large stockpile of commercial grade materials? What if we expanded that idea and blended Pu-239 (which is the material used in a lot of current weapons) with U-238 or even Thorium to produce fuel that can be used in readily available reactor designs?
The result, of course, would be an over supply situation where there is far more commercial nuclear fuel available than required by current reactors. The answer to that, of course, would be to build a lot more reactors as rapidly as possible – within the bounds of safe manufacturing processes, of course. As soon as those reactors come on line, they are great storage vaults for former weapons materials that almost guard themselves against any diversion of the material.
Then we would have far more electrical power available than we currently use, so we would have to – oh darn – shut down a bunch of old, grandfathered, dirty coal plants. Those plants, unfortunately, do not have large decommissioning funds available – since that is not part of their regulatory requirements – but we could find a way to turn the sites now hosting coal plants into something useful. Perhaps we could put a few of those numerous new nuclear plants on the old coal sites?
Yes, there would be costs associated with the above, but what the anti’s invariably forget is that there will also be revenue that will provide a return on the investment, especially if that investment is well managed. The plants need to come on line, they need to find customers, and they need to sell their power. There are plenty of power demands in the world that are either not being met at all, or that are being met with equipment that has significant economic and environmental disadvantages compared to those new nuclear plants that I just described.
What do you think – can we address both world changing needs at the same time by spreading new nuclear power plants all over the world?