Plutonium: Valuable Fuel or Costly Waste?
For more than forty years, the United States and the Soviet Union built nuclear weapons and aimed them at each other’s heartlands. The process of building those weapons was expensive in strict monetary terms and in terms of sacrificing investments in more productive enterprises.
Now, however, the confrontational attitude between the two countries has been dramatically reduced and sustained efforts are underway to eliminate the stockpile of weapons. Of course, much of the cost of the arms race can never be recovered; the salaries of the security personnel have long been spent, the computers used in missile guidance systems are obsolete and not useful for other purposes and the specialized materials used in solid rocket boosters have a very limited market.
The nuclear warheads themselves, however, have a real value in a very broad and established market. Though designed as explosives with incredible destructive power when fissioned rapidly, a straightforward and proven technical process can turn these warheads into a source of clean energy that can make a significant impact on the world’s energy consumption patterns during the next twenty to thirty years.
How Much Material?
According to a briefing paper published by the Uranium Institute (an Australian organization specializing in uranium market information) the stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium available from weapons stockpiles amounts to approximately 2260 metric tons of stockpiled material that is between 90 and 93 percent fissile. From the point of view of a reactor designer, there is little difference in the utility or value of the two materials.
How Much Energy?
A good approximation for the energy contained in fissile material is that each gram of material contains approximately one megawatt-day of heat. (Glasstone and Sesonske, p. 15) The energy content, therefore, of the weapons material stockpile is 2,260,000,000 grams x 1 MW-day/gm or 2.26 billion MW-days.
Another useful rule of thumb is that a MW-day of heat is roughly equivalent to burning two tons of average quality oil. The total primary energy consumption (including oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro and others) in 1993 of the industrialized nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was about 4.2 billion metric tons of oil equivalent (IEA Statistics Oil and Gas Information 1993). Therefore, the heat energy contained in the weapons stockpile is more than enough to completely fuel the economies of Western Europe, Canada, Japan and the United States for a year.
Value as Enriched Material?
It would require approximately 500 kilograms – half a ton – of former weapons material to fuel a single engine (10 – 20 MW of propulsive power) ship for its entire life. The weapons stockpile could thus fuel several thousand ships (some of which could have more than one engine) until the year 2020. Recycling using proven techniques could extend this time to 2030 or 2040.
Since the material extracted from nuclear warheads is almost pure fissile material, there are few technical obstacles for using it in engines much smaller than those found on board naval ships. In previous issues of AEI, we have described a variety of small atomic power plant projects with power levels of as low as a few kilowatts.
Using enriched fuel and currently available technology, the minimum size of a critical reactor is about the size of a kitchen garbage can. The mass, including shielding, of a complete electrical power system based on such reactors could be as low as a few thousand kilograms and fit into a suburban garage. Small atomic engines using former weapons material could provide power in areas that either do not have any power now, or in areas where the power is provided by smelly engines burning expensive diesel fuel.
If the weapons material was used in small or medium sized engines, one would have to compare its value to that of the oil that would have been burned to supply the same power need. (Actually, since the uranium and plutonium take up far less useful space on the ship and since they produce their heat without needing any exhaust stacks, they should actually be considered to be more valuable than the oil, but we will not quibble.)
The current world price of a ton of oil is about $150 – 200 USD depending on the day of the week and the temperature in New England and Northern Europe. The value of the weapons material stockpile could thus be placed at $690 – 920 billion dollars.
Value in Commercial Reactors?
Accountants, like those that evaluate the cost-effectiveness of government programs, rarely take into account markets and applications that do not yet exist – even if the technology is well proven. Let’s look, therefore, at using the warheads as fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors.
Large commercial facilities use low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel containing between 3.5 and 4 percent fissile material and 96 to 96.5 percent uranium 238. It is a far simpler process than the original enrichment to mix 93 percent fissile material with depleted uranium (material left over from the original enrichment and stockpiled in mass quantities at the enrichment plants), natural uranium (mined from ore at the current rate of about 33,000 tons per year) or with low enriched uranium.
The blending down process produces about 30 tons of LEU for every ton of fissile material; the weapons stockpile thus represents about 67,800 tons of fuel for commercial nuclear reactors, or about eight times the world’s annual demands for this material.
By this measure, it would be possible to completely shut down the uranium mining industry for the better part of a decade while we work on eliminating the surplus material from the arms race. Since the blending down process does not require the services of enrichment plants, that industry’s production could also be shut down.
Instead of utilities paying mining and enrichment companies, they could purchase material from government stockpiles, providing a small return to taxpayers from their decades of expenditures on nuclear weapons. The total value of the weapons material would then be on the order of $48 billion. (That is far less than its value as an oil replacement, but $48 billion is still a rather large sum of money.)
Notwithstanding the analysis presented above, a “Coalition of National Organizations” that includes – among others – Nuclear Control Institute, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council (training ground for many high level Department of Energy employees), Public Citizen (Ralph Nader’s umbrella organization), the Rocky Mountain Institute (home of Amory Lovins, a noted proponent of alternative energy), the Sierra Club, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group made the following statement on December 20, 1996 in a letter to Hazel O’Leary, the soon to be former Secretary of Energy.
“We urge in the strongest of terms, therefore, that your Record of Decision [on weapons material disposal] take the following form: [items one and two omitted] 3. Make clear that the United States regards plutonium as a dangerous liability, not as a valuable energy resource. We also ask you to make clear that the United States is “strongly opposed” to commercial use of plutonium, and thereby deny European, Japanese, and Russian plutonium interests any opportunity to exploit the dual track [vitrification and MOX] to their advantage. . .”
The full letter makes it quite clear that the groups are adamantly opposed to any actions that could lead to the development of plutonium based fuel as a commercial product.
The group’s position on plutonium would probably cause cheers if articulated in a meeting of uranium miners. Compare it to the following comment, “The utilization of military HEU stockpiles for civilian purposes may be, from a politician’s point of view, a step in the right direction with respect to non-proliferation. It is, however, a bitter pill for uranium miners to swallow.” [Supply and Demand in the Nuclear Fuel Market available on the Internet site of the Uranium Institute.] Though it might be good for taxpayers to collect the money now going to uranium miners, the miners would not enjoy the diversion of their revenues.
Paul Leventhal, the President of the Nuclear Control Institute and the first signer (perhaps the author?) of the December 20th letter to the Secretary, is fond of quoting studies from the uranium trade press stating that there is “no need” in the market for the plutonium. [Testimony of Paul Leventhal before the Joint Economic Committee, U. S. Congress, June 6, 1994]
He is also the coauthor (along with Steven Dolley, also employed by NCI) of a study that concluded that Japan would be better off if they purchased a large reserve of low enriched uranium than if they continued to pursue their plans for recycling the fuel from their reactors. This plan, too, would win friends in the uranium mining and enrichment business, since it would increase the demand for their product while decreasing the supply of a competitive product (recycled fuel.)
In a January 25, 1995 OP-ED piece for the New York Times, Mr. Leventhal and Mr. Daniel Horner (Deputy Director, Nuclear Control Institute) made the following statement “Most industrial states, including those with nuclear weapons, have a vested interest in plutonium. Powerful government-owned corporations hold electric utilities to profitable contracts by supplying them with plutonium they no longer want or need.”
The same industrial countries also have extremely powerful vested interests that want to ensure that plutonium is thrown away. [Aside from the author: I once had a lengthy conversation with executives of a large paper company. They told me that they considered it part of their professional duty to obtain and throw away as much junk mail as possible. They considered it a low cost way of increasing the demand for paper products.] Uranium mining companies, government-owned enrichment facilities and even fossil fuel suppliers have a very strong interest in stopping the emergence of a nuclear fuel recycling industry.
As the trade and business press makes quite clear, the price of fuel is very sensitive to the balance between supply and demand. Energy companies are currently reaping the financial rewards of the price increases that are possible when supply is perceived to be growing more slowly than demand, but they clearly understand the dislocations and economic hardships that would be the result of a widespread realization that the readily available supply of energy is almost unlimited compared to the demand. The oil price collapse of 1985 and the gradual decrease in the price of coal over the past eight years provide just a inkling of the possibly devastating effect on suppliers.
Though he might not recognize his value to these interest groups, it is likely that energy suppliers appreciate having a spokesman like Mr. Leventhal, who once called the potential for a plutonium economy “a likely way of death for mankind.” [Paul Leventhal, The New Nuclear Threat, Wall Street Journal June 8, 1994.]