Sometimes I want to just shout out when I read an article describing a growing problem that has a rather obvious solution. My Google Alert this morning brought me one such article from USA Today (not one of my normal news sources unless on the road). The article, titled U.S. warhead disposal in 15-year backlog was a hand wringing story about how warheads that have been removed from delivery systems and retired in the US will fill up the available storage location by 2016. The plutonium parts of these devices is sometimes called a pit.
The article talked about the large projected investment required to build facilities to process these pits. What it did talk much about was the potential revenue that can be generated to pay off the cost of the construction by turning those threatening weapons into something that all of us purchase and use almost without thinking about it – electricity.
As mentioned a couple of days ago in my blog about Areva’s use of mixed oxide (MOX) fuels, plutonium is a pretty good substitute for U-235 as a fissile material in light water reactor fuel. It has been purposely used in that way for new fuels for more than 35 years, and it has also been inherently used as part of the energy output from all other uranium reactors. That happens as a natural result of fission in a reactor with a large portion of the fuel in the form of U-238; some of the U-238 absorbs a neutron and then experiences a couple of rapid decays to become Pu-239. As soon as there is some Pu-239 in a core as a result of this transformation, there is a distinct probability that another neutron will come along and fission that material.
As I recall from my basic nuclear engineering courses, approximately 1/3 of the total energy produced from a fuel assembly while it is in a power plant comes from fissioning Pu-239. In direct contradiction to what you might have read, mixed oxide fuels are nothing new. All reactors operate with some level of mixed oxides today – admittedly, the portion of the mix that is Pu-239 is rather low except for the 35 or so reactors that purposely load Areva’s product or the product from some Russian fuel supplies.
Every pound of the Pu-239 that is waiting to be destroyed as a result of a continuing effort to reduce the world’s inventory of nuclear weapons is potential fuel with a heat value equivalent to two MILLION pounds of oil. That is 2000 tons or roughly 14,000 barrels of oil. If you want to compare it against coal, a pound of plutonium contains about as much energy as 3-4 million pounds of coal depending on the grade of the coal.
There is no doubt that converting warheads into fuel will require some investment and a fair amount of intellectual effort in the design, licensing, and plant construction process. It will also require many man years of careful operations. All of that human time investment will cost a considerable amount of money and produce something of lasting value that pays good dividends in making the world a slightly less threatening place and in producing a large quantity of emission free fuel that does not even have to be mined or enriched.
The effort is an opportunity disguised as a challenge. As one of my heros said:
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.