Currently, hydropower provides 6% of the USA’s electrical power, and solar, biomass, wind and geothermal combined provide 3%.
Dismantled nuclear weapons provide 10%.
The ‘Megatons to Megawatts’ programme was instituted in the 1990s as a means to secure the weapons that both the US and Russsia had agreed to dismantle as a result of arms reduction treaties. What was initially seen as a massive security issue has been transformed into a cheap and plentiful supply of fissile material, and also led to huge financial savings from not having to secure and maintain the warheads themselves, along with their associated delivery systems. The scheme has been very successful – material from Russia’s ex-weapons currently provides 45% of the fuel in US reactors, with former American weapons providing a further 5%.
As conventional oil supplies peak, dismantling nuclear weapons and using their uranium in nuclear reactors makes extremely good economic and strategic sense. The highly enriched material in the warheads can be blended for use in civilian reactors, providing an excellent energy resource at a cheap net cost to society – all the hard work of mining, extracting and enriching has already been done. It also has a tangible benefit – after the uranium is blended, its purity falls from 90% to approximately 5%, and it is no longer usable in weapons. It is a win-win strategy for the increasingly resource constrained world we find ourselves moving into.
The current supplies of uranium, from the previous rounds of disarmament, are scheduled to run out in 2013. Interestingly, the US and Russia are currently negotiating a treaty to further reduce their stockpile of weapons. It would appear that Russia, along with being the world’s largest producer of oil, will be providing a significant percentage of the fissile material powering America’s reactors for quite some time to come.
To quote the New York Times, which has an excellent article on this:
“Treaties at the end of the cold war led to the decommissioning of thousands of warheads. Their energy-rich cores are converted into civilian reactor fuel.
In the United States, the agreements are portrayed as nonproliferation treaties — intended to prevent loose nukes in Russia.
In Russia, where the government argues that fissile materials are impenetrably secure already, the arms agreements are portrayed as a way to make it harder for the United States to reverse disarmament”
It appears both the US and Russia have been succeeded in portraying this in their respective countries as a victory, and one that enhances their security – a truly successful 21st century swords to plowshares.
about the author: Paddy Morris Based in Dublin, and having had an interest in environmental issues for almost 2 decades, Paddy will be blogging about a wide range of topics, with a focus on the old reliables of climate change and peak oil, along with a selection of interesting environmental and science stories from across the web.