"Though the idea of pulling reactor fuel second-hand from 1970s and 1980s bombs may disturb some ..,"
I can't imagine who would be disturbed by this - unless they were already 'disturbed'
The US government is set to wrap up a little-known project that involved generating electricity from Russian nuclear warheads. The Megatons to Megawatts program is a 20-year partnership that expired this year: it pulled uranium out of Soviet warheads and repurposed them into fuel for nuclear reactors. The program uses various …
Indeed, and then it's compounded by "keep in mind that this an industry that still relies in part on the PDP-11."
So what's the implication here - that somehow uranium isotopes become obsolete like computer systems? I'd venture that leaving highly enriched uranium in obsolete bombs is what would have been disturbing.
And if the PDP-11 is getting the job done, why feel the need to pull it out and replace it (and by so doing unleash a knot of vipers to plague one yea unto the fifth generation - assuming someone doesn't just hold a parliamentary/congressional hearing and have the whole thing replaced by new kit supplied by -c-r-o-n-I-e-s- lobbyists' clients)?
The tech industry has a really stupid outlook - half the time bemoaning the obsolescence cycles of pay-to-play software then sneering at any kit that has the nerve to be functioning with no problems beyond the same lifetime as the aforementioned software.
Clearly the requirements for this machine's need were well-defined and properly implemented. I say that deserves backslapping and beers all round. cf just about anything we Reg Readers have read about here (NHS, local councils, NASA etc etc etc).
Just saying "holy shit that's a lot" doesn't express it. That's a *lot* of money involved in mining & refining that in the first place - apparently $8 to 12 billion dollars worth. I wonder how the hell this was funded "at no cost to taxpayers" and what the Russians got out of it?
I don't see why it was so quiet... I'd think taking 20,000 nuclear warheads out of service would be something to be proud of... however something seems to be fishy with the money trail IMHO.
The 'at no cost to the taxpayer' bit has always been an issue with the program, from day 1. That statement was how the program was sold to Congress, and more than one career has been shortened by making a stink about the costs. Every part of the program has been occulted and obfuscated and nobody will ever know the whole story, but below is a short(ish) summary of what was going on, and why.
The program was positioned, in public, as being a way to get free reactor fuel and reduce Russian nuclear stockpiles. But they meant 'free' in the way only governments and accountants use the word. At the end of the day, the 'no cost' goal was met by arguing that the costs of acquiring, moving, disassembling and repurposing the weapons via a treaty mechanism was cheaper than the forecasts for taking the weapons by force. At the time we were maintaining an unbelievably huge funding pool (in the budget anyway) for dealing with the Russians, and since that money was already 'spent' it could be reallocated to the new, feel-good, disarmament program without impacting the budget.
At any rate, many billions of dollars were sent to Russia and we paid them huge money for 'technical assistance' as well as building some very nice research facilities for them and we paid a 'fair market value' for the actual fuel. Those expenses however, were distributed across many different agencies and were not calculated as costs in the overall program.
Like I said, lots of number shifting, but this program was actually only the public face of a military project and the costs were never actually a concern. All the weapons and fuel that went to Kentucky were considered low-grade and unsuitable for use in Naval vessels, classified spacecraft and other classified projects as the recovery and reprocessing costs were higher than making it from scratch. It was the garbage from the Russian programs.
The high quality weapons and fuel (as well as the stuff from the Libyan program) went to ORNL where the weapons are still being disassembled and the fuel is being repackaged for use in our ships and other projects. I was still at ORNL when the preprocessing and fuel storage facilities were expanded and they built the funny little train to carry the materials around the facility. ORNL is a weird/scary place on a good day, but when they were moving the weapons around above ground it was full on sci-fi scary. Security came by all the offices and closed the blinds and sealed them closed every time something was in transit. We weren't even allowed outside our building as it was slightly elevated and someone might have seen something.
Anyway, Russia was in such terrible financial shape that they sold us a bunch of their weapons, knowing full well that we would use the fuel to strengthen our own military. We also got to pick apart the rest of the related systems and those findings are still used today in attack simulations. Having your enemy willing to sell you their strategic weapons as scrap/salvage is a pretty rare thing and we would have bought everything they had if they had been willing to sell, regardless of the costs. Some politicians scoring some points for 'swords to plowshares' initiatives was just a bonus that also provided a smokescreen for all the nuclear weapons that were being moved around the world.
"Anyway, Russia was in such terrible financial shape that they sold us a bunch of their weapons, knowing full well that we would use the fuel to strengthen our own military."
Sounds like a few lucky Russian Generals were able to drink themselves to death on champagne instead of the meths on sale at the market.
That said, in the greater scheme of things, I'd call this not a bad deal at all. No force of arms, and we take a good number of potential civilisation-wrecking weapons out of service and put their good bits to use in less-belligerent ways. It would depend on the final price tag, but I consider it money well spent.
The reason it was kept quiet was because it wasa remarkably same thing to do and it wouldn't be good if people found out they could be sensible and cooperate. We might expect them to do it more often! Just imagine where that would lead us, a peaceful world and effective government that represents the people's best interests. That would get in the way of screwing with voting laws and starting wars to boost the shares you hold in arms companies. Perish the thought.
Politicians of that time also understood the general population a lot better than they do today. Look at how freaked out people got about bringing prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and putting them in our high-security prisons. It was basically a no risk move that would have saved several billion dollars a year and people were so scared they wouldn't let it happen.
When the disarmament programs were in full swing we were bringing live Russian nuclear weapons from the 60's (the enormously overpowered and extra dirty ones) into the country. There were very real risks involved and it cost many billions of dollars. The at large public would have gone completely insane with fear if there had been a lot of publicity around the programs.
It was basically a no risk move that would have saved several billion dollars a year and people were so scared they wouldn't let it happen.
Note that the stupid bull pumped out by MSM, dumbf*ck congressmen and TV talking heads is not necessarily what people in the street think. Some people from Afghanistan that have been in torture paradise for a decade are actually Muslim Superman biding their time, able to phase through walls once brought into the homeland? A likely tale.
That "no risk move" It would also at least have paid lip service to the notion of a nation of laws instead of the current we-make-it-up-while-we-go-hail-victory prancing of a "democracy" within scare quotes that actually exhibits the eagles-with-oak-leaves-and-thunderbolts bombast so beloved of youthful boy scouts and mental midgets of the bureaucratic sort.
And then the summer of surveillance of 2013 occurred, but that is another story.
It was so quiet because it was one of the rare instances in which war hawks and doves agreed. With no ongoing food fights the media couldn't sell papers/get eyeballs by reporting the story. Or at least, that's what they thought. I was aware of the program back when it started, but honestly thought it had expired long ago.
Where did they get the multiple $100 million dollar payments to the Russians?
"U.S. legislation passed on October 31, 1998, allows the DOE Secretary to request an emergency appropriation of up to $325 million to buy the natural uranium delivered to TENEX"
That sure as hell sounds like funding from the taxpayers to me!
This is according to the timeline at http://www.usec.com/russian-contracts/megatons-megawatts/timeline
If my memory is to be trusted, uranium 235 is only the second-most favoured fissile material for weapon manufacture; plutonium 239 is the #1. There are also a few others which are theoretically suitable, but (again from memory) none of them are thought to have been used as the main element in a nuclear device. So if the Yanks have helped get rid of all that enriched uranium, what has been done with all the plutonium? Do we know?
Nobody really knows how much plutonium has actually been produced. Both the US and Russia have lost quite a bit of their known output. They've found never inventoried caches of plutonium in four sites I'm aware of in the States and three in Russia/former USSR countries. The last US discovery happened as recently as 2004 or 2005 and in Russia in 2012. Both countries had projects that were so secret they have become completely lost. Neat huh!
Current best case estimates figure about 500 tons of plutonium is out there and worst case figure about 1000 tons between weapons, fuel and research applications. There's about 30 tons of new plutonium created annually as a byproduct of power generation as well.
In an argument that can only make sense in an insane world (like during the Cold War), lost plutonium is considered less of a threat than lost uranium. The thinking goes that although plutonium is extremely potent in a weapon, the difficulties and expense in handling, storing and utilizing it make it highly unlikely that anyone who doesn't already have some would be able to build a functional plutonium weapon. Everything about plutonium weapons is several orders of magnitude more expensive and complex than a uranium device.
A few clever engineers with a budget and access to enriched uranium could build a uranium weapon that might actually result in a nuclear detonation. Trying to build a plutonium weapon on the other hand would probably kill everyone involved in the project long before they could even come close to a functional device. The material is nearly impossible to machine due to its state changes and casting it requires an enormously complex system as it explodes on contact with air when in its molten form. It behaves in the exact opposite way than almost every other metal and it's extraordinarily dirty. In short, unless you've got a very advanced nuclear weapons program plutonium is more dangerous to its owners than the owners enemies.
So noted. You can see this attitude in the Manhattan Project. Fat Man (the Plutonium bomb) required a very precise arrangement of explosives to set off the implosion chain reaction properly (this was why the Trinity test--Trinity was a plutonium bomb similar to Fat Man), and even then Trinity was estimated to have only managed to achieve about 20% fission of its payload. OTOH, Little Boy seemed simple enough to pull off: fire off one U-235 slug at high speed into another (although IIRC the main reason for not testing the Uranium Gun design was lack of materials--still proved to be valid).
Yes, the uranium weapon was considered virtually guaranteed to result in a nuclear detonation. As nuclear weapons go it was as straightforward a thing as is possible. As you note, there wasn't enough suitable uranium for a test and after the Trinity test all the timelines for using the bombs on actual targets were dramatically accelerated. Nobody was actually prepared for the full effects of the Trinity test and there was great concern somebody might have noticed the test.
The Fat Man weapon was actually the fall back plan if Little Boy did not work properly. The horrible effects of the plutonium fallout, even with a fizzle, were a 'bonus' deterrent in keeping the enemy away from the uranium device while we bombed the bejesus out of them with conventional weapons to make sure the bomb couldn't be recovered. In the event Little Boy didn't work we had also decided to destroy Kobe, which has been spared because of its traditional and religious significance just to upset everyone while we bombed the failed bomb some more.
Everything about nuclear weapons is bizzaro world insane. Had the uranium device not worked in Hiroshima we had already planned an overwhelming and deliberately destructive campaign to basically vaporize huge parts of Japan just to keep the weapon a secret. The estimated carnage made the bomb damage look like a rounding error. All to keep a secret that would be found out anyway in very short order. The explosion was the good result? That's pure insanity. I'm very glad the world mostly came to its senses and stopped waving nuclear weapons around. The thought processes around the weapons were far more fucked up than the weapons themselves.
The Little Boy bomb's theoretical likelihood of working was very high. The Fat Man was more complex from an engineering standpoint and it was tested to make sure it would work. Only 6 grams of matter was converted to energy in one of the bombs dropped on Japan. I believe it was Fat Man. That's a scary example of E=MC^2.
"The thinking goes that although plutonium is extremely potent in a weapon, the difficulties and expense in handling, storing and utilizing it make it highly unlikely that anyone who doesn't already have some would be able to build a functional plutonium weapon. Everything about plutonium weapons is several orders of magnitude more expensive and complex than a uranium device."
What about someone who's willing to die for his religion exploding a plutonium-dirty car bomb in the Green Zone in Iraq?
You hose the area down with water from the Tigris.
Seriously, it's bad but not that bad.
Just add it to the list of DU-contaminated zones courtesy of Uncle Sam who has gifts for everyone™, with the concomitant interesting mutations down the line.
It would be easier to source Agent Orange/a ton of dioxin to dust the office workers and assorted imperial sycophants.
A plutonium 'dirty bomb' is obviously a scary thought, but the realities of the situation and the physics involved make it a techno-thriller plot device, not an actual threat. Our friend science will protect us.
Of the plutonium that is known to be missing globally, less than 500kg is in a stabilized alloy. The rest of it is in various unstable forms and states as dictated by its original intended purpose. There are zero plutonium weapon elements unaccounted for, none. So we can completely eliminate the possibly of a plutonium fueled nuclear detonation by a non-state actor. That isn't going to happen.
So we're left dealing with one of two scenarios: a stabilized plutonium alloy or plutonium in variety of lethally unstable states. If we make a very far leap and assume someone acquired more than a few grams of stable alloy, somehow, the equipment required to do anything with it is even rarer than the element itself.
The equipment to safely transport and to verify that you've actually got plutonium is highly controlled itself. If you're getting your plutonium from someone who has the equipment to not only transport it safely but to verify it is actually plutonium you have just met the security service agent who is about to kill you. Congratulations.
Without that equipment you've got a negative sum equation, no matter how you look at it. If you take the 'safe' route to nuclear suicide bombing you've got to assume the transport container actually contains plutonium. If it does actually contain plutonium and everyone around it isn't rapidly getting sick you're not going to be able to destroy the container with a car bomb explosion. The containers are literally bomb proof. They are, for all intents and purposes, indestructible.
If you open the container (which also requires very specialized and controlled equipment that won't fit in a vehicle) to expose the contents the chances of even getting it to your vehicle and to your destination are nearly zero. But let's say you have done the impossible and did make it inside with 1kg of plutonium on your backseat. When you detonate your bomb you're still going to have 1kg of plutonium, just no more backseat. Plutonium doesn't blow up well, it just kind of rattles around. As it is heated it becomes almost instantly plasticized and changes back as soon as the heat is removed. You've scared the shit out of a bunch of people and first responders may suffer lethal radiation poisoning, but it's a one off event. You'd stand a better chance of getting cancer from piano music than repeating the events, even if your cohorts had more plutonium.
If you had ground up plutonium alloy and blew that up it could be pretty bad, but you've got no way to grind it up. A few state actors and maybe 10 facilities worldwide have the equipment to grind it at all, much less grind it without killing everybody in the process. If you had unstable, non-alloyed plutonium, none of the previous events would have occurred in the first place.
All in all, plutonium poses very little risk to those not directly involved with it. The public at large and those in the military have far, far more realistic and conventional risks threatening them if they feel the need to be concerned about something.
There should be some videos on YouTube showing the crash testing of train cars designed to transport nuclear fuels. Impressive crash after monstrous impact never breached the integrity of the casket. It's fun to watch too. I have some photos of the transport system being used to move fuel from the San Onofre (sp?) plant in California. The trailer had 192 wheels to distribute the load and I think they crashed a train into a prototype to test it's safety. Scratched the paint on the carrier and destroyed the train.
The NTSB used to have some great videos of transport and storage cask testing. They are as close to indestructible as Humans can make something.
The bulk of the US testing videos out there are related to the various logistics projects that will take place once Yucca Mountain is fully operational. You can find (or used to could anyway, haven't looked in years) the videos and photos by searching the DoE site for Yucca Mountain transportation and logistics programs as well as the DoT federal site and the DoT sites in the states where material is currently at or will be moved through when they finally get everything going. The videos are part of a public awareness campaign made to reassure people about the movement of all the radioactive materials, so they shouldn't be hard to find.
Yes, but then the detractors point out the possibility of intentional sabotage: derail the train then plant a penetrating shaped charge on it. The figure no matter how strong you build the thing, something that detonates with temperatures akin to the Sun will blow through ANYTHING.
" It behaves in the exact opposite way than almost every other metal and it's extraordinarily dirty"
Apart from the chemistry mentioned (and the radioactivity) it's a hellaciously nasty toxic heavy metal. It''s very appropriately named and the best place for it is in a GenIV Molten Salt nuclear reactor.
Don Jefe, Are you sure the Plutonium figure is 30 tons? I think it's much much less than that, but I can't find the reference. Don't leave out that Pu metal is toxic as well as a radiation hazard.
All somebody would need to do is break into a power plant, access the spent fuel pool, transfer some fuel assemblies into a suitable shipping container and take it to a facility where the pellets can be chemically processed to recover the Pu. If you want the unused U235 all you need is a large plant to separate the isotopes. No problem, right? I don't worry about spent reactor fuel being used to make bombs. I worry about government weapons programs that can't keep track of their inventory.
The actual global figure for 2012 was a little over 24 tons as Japanese production was very low, but in 2010 it was 31.4 tons, globally. The 2010 figure was a little higher than normal because of MOX related experiments in several countries. There is a 20 tons annual general figure that floats around in the media but it doesn't reflect all the research production or known, but classified, projects in several countries.
The incursion into a production facility and the processes you're talking about would require a state actor, with an openly operating infrastructure and an actual ground invasion in order to occur. Nothing involved in any of that is simple, or even possible to do covertly anymore, or would even be allowed. The international response for every possible scenario is already planned and would be overwhelming.
The material doesn't go missing anymore, thankfully. The politics of crazy are vastly different than they were, even into the 90's. There's actually some debate in the nuclear security field as to the veracity of published US and Russian production figures from the 50's and 60's as the amount of disinformation and outright bullshit propaganda from both countries was immense. That's part of the reason for the ~500 tons of variance between current estimates of old material.
Long term storage of plutonium and other high level waste materials are the biggest threat, not missing/stolen material. In the US the Yucca Mountain project is trundling along but the Savannah River site is in poor repair. Three of the above ground high level waste storage casks have been leaking for nearly 30 years and are currently relying on their third, and final, redundant layer of protection to prevent groundwater contamination. The smaller sites are in various states of repair but nothing remotely permanent. The Russians have the same problems. The French are generally considered the best at waste management but they've got a burning problem too.
Nuclear power is the best option out there for the foreseeable future but the waste issue is a big problem and nobody has any good answers. Even the people in the field who are paid to blue sky waste management technologies don't have good answers. Dealing with envoirnmental challenges are the legitimate risks with plutonium. Someone losing control of the material from a military or political/religious manuver is not a viable threat. In reality it never was considered much of a threat. As I outlined above the only people who are threatened by it are the people already making it and the processes and repercussions are now very well understood. If you aren't already producing your own, there is no possibility you'd be able to do anything with it if you acquired some.
The Clinton White House had a plan to take 50 tonnes of plutonium from each of the American and Russian stockpiles to blend into MOX fuel for PWRs. IIRC the Bush White House cancelled the plan.
In a 2000 agreement, the US said it would turn 75% of its plutonium stockpile into MOX which would be consumed in PWRs, but not reprocessed. The rest would be blended into reactor waste and vitrified, this was cancelled around 2000 and the MOX plant is still under construction.. The US also agreed to help the Russians build a MOX plant to dispose of 34 tonnes of their plutonium, but the cost rose from about $3 billion to more than $18 billion. So far the Russians have paid for their MOX plant from their own money.
In 2010, the US agreed an amendment to the 2000 agreement that will allow the Russians to turn their plutonium into fuel for two demonstration fast neutron reactors that are under construction with the stipulation it will not reprocess any spent fuel from the reactors before all 34 tonnes have been passed through the plants.
US plutonium is kept at Pantex near Amarillo in Texas and at Savannah River, Georgia. Not sure about the Russian plutonium.
France offered to sell a MOX plant to the US, but was refused. Both Britain and France have (mostly) operational MOX facilities largely designed for exporting fuel to Japan which was suspended, but which has now resumed, following the Fukushima meltdowns.
BTW. A large amount of the highly enriched uranium in the Megatons to Megawatts programme actually came from Soviet era nuclear submarine fuel which was often enriched to over 90% so that the core could be made smaller and quieter.
The long term storage costs were also calculated in the program, and again it was considered a really good deal. The Russians had a fairly huge stockpile of extremely unstable early weapons and no resources to safely deal with the situation. Their plan was pretty much just lock the doors and deal with the inevitable disasters later.
The US figured dealing with the material now, was cheaper than the humanitarian and environmental crises that would arise and we would have to help pay for. Even in the worst parts of the Cold War nobody wanted to irradiate huge swaths of land and people. It was all royally fucked up.
There's something that doesn't feel quite right about that 10% figure. Total nuclear power in the USA is 8.4% of electricity generation, so I suspect that the claim should have been 10% of nuclear electricity. Nuclear power plants have closed, but to have ever reached 10% of total power every one would have had to be running on fuel from this source. At the same time. Which, with refueling cycles and the need to keep conventional uranium sources in business, seems unlikely.
So either USEC's press release is a lie, or it was misunderstood.
>Total nuclear power in the USA is 8.4% of electricity generation,
-- in some years, up to 10%
>every one would have had to be running on fuel from this source
For the last 20 years, mine production of uranium has been approximately half the amount used. Half of the total uranium used has been from pre-1990 stockpiles. In other words, old weapons uranium.
Kazakhstan when they got rid of the nuclear weapons they inherited with the breakup of the USSR.
Go north from Almaty into the Steppe and you could find a line of old soviet SS20 ICBM launchers parked and gently rusting away. If I recall they were part of the SALT3 treaty (or summat like that)
I last saw them circa 1997
There used to be an S20 target vehicle in Knoxville, TN. complete with a mockup weapon. ORNL (next door to Knoxville) was, and still is, a major research center for remote sensing and automated image analysis. They drove the target vehicle around the city and countryside and hid it as part of their testing.
It was after all, just a big truck, so it wasn't guarded and as such has served as a feature of many, many drunken college student pictures :)
The title is slightly wrong:
"Why America is no longer slurping electricity from Russian nuke warheads"
implies that no energy is being generated any more, whereas later in the article:
"Earlier this week the final shipment of uranium left Russia en route to a facility in Paducah, Kentucky, where it will be converted into low-enriched reactor fuel"
Shame there isn't a way to easily convert it back to 238Pu, at least this would be useful for RTGs.
In its oxide form as a ceramic it is very stable and as reliable a heat source as you can get.
I did read somewhere that 239Pu could be metastable, if so then a relatively simple setup could convert it to 238Pu and release some energy in the process although the neutrons would be a problem.
That said in thin layers this might be a bonus as you could use those neutrons suitably moderated to enrich 232Th up to 233U and generate even more power.
Plutonium is a strange, strange thing, and there is absolutely nothing relatively simple about it. For all the accuracy and precision of everything else related to its use, the material itself defies precision shaping and manipulation. Even weapon elements, the most precise of all plutonium products, look like what a child would make if you handed them a tube of metallic J-B Weld (for those not familiar, that's a hardware store product for minor repairs of metal objects) They are crude things that if you saw lying on the street you would think had fallen out of a garbage truck. They're just clunky gray metal, full of visible pits and valleys that would be rated a failed project in a foundry based art class. That ugly, imprecise, inaccurate state represents the pinnacle of mankinds mastery of the material.
My point is that while the chemistry and the math works wonderfully well on paper, it all goes pear shaped when it comes time to deal with the material itself. The inherent inconsistencies in manipulating the material are why weapon payloads always have ridiculously wide variances in yield estimates, you never really know what you're going to get until you detonate one and the next one will be different.
The same is true in power generation applications, the sustained reaction isn't consistent at all, partially because the fuel itself is wildly inconsistent in its physical construction. Same with MOX conversion, an enormous part of the expense in those processes is because they're constantly reworked to deal with physical inconsistencies in the source plutonium. You don't see the economies you'd normally see in chemical processes at scale, it's different every single time.
I'm not trying to say that other, alternative applications for the stuff don't exist, but the costs involved, even in the well understood processes, aren't practical. The costs aren't practical when budgets are good, much less in times like these. It's cheaper to just stick it in a cave and maintain 'safe' storage for an indefinite time than actually do anything with it. Experimental reactors and processes may change that equation someday, but we'll have put Humans on Mars before they see even medium scale deployment.
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