Science Update: Warheads for Fuel

Here’s an interesting topic currently being discussed in higher academia, and among policy-makers; the conversion of Weapons-Grade Uranium from existing Military Warheads into fuel for Commercial Nuclear Reactors.

Putin’s announced withdrawal from the Nuclear Arms Control Pact, is a cause for concern of a renewed arms race between the U.S., Russia, and China. China and Russia, after all, have been buying uranium mines in recent years – bypassing market rates – that is, paying premiums for mines even while worldwide prices have remained relatively low.

One of the concerns is the diversion of commercial grade uranium into nuclear weapons manufacturing and away from commercial power plants. This would further deplete uranium stocks, driving up the cost of uranium, and potentially make the transition from Russia’s fossil fuels to alternative energy much more difficult.

It was just announced that Ukraine is planning to build two US-made reactors for the Khemelnitsky nuclear plant. This is “part of a broader strategy to turn the Ukrainian energy sector towards Western technologies and away from Russian ones” (Enerdata Intelligence & Consulting 1/25/23).

Ukraine has also expressed an interest in replacing Russia as one of the primary energy providers in Western Europe, after the war. Last year, Westinghouse announced an agreement with Ukraine to build 9 new nuclear power plants, nearly doubling the number of AP1000 reactors in Ukraine in support of Ukraine’s aspirations towards becoming a global power supplier.

“Highly-enriched-uranium (HEU) can be blended down with uranium to produce low-enriched-uranium (LEU) suitable for commercial energy production. Military uranium for weapons is enriched to much higher levels than that for the civil fuel cycle. Weapons-grade material is about 97% U-235, and this can be diluted about 25:1 with depleted uranium (or 30:1 with enriched depleted uranium) to reduce it to about 4%, suitable for use in a power reactor” (World Nuclear Association). The technology exists, and is viable.

World stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, are one of the primary alternative sources for uranium supply, secondary to mining. Other sources include recycled (or re-enriched) uranium and plutonium, and civil stockpiles which are also dwindling.

Conversion of Nuclear Warheads to Fuel has been seen for years as a benefit to the cause for ending nuclear proliferation by permanently decommissioning excess stockpiles of weapons. It can also help to meet the expected increase in demand for global plutonium stocks as part of a shift away from fossil fuels by providing a source other than mining. And, while the U.S. will not likely be letting Putin dictate its policy on Nuclear Arms Proliferation any time soon, if a nuclear arms race does begin to take shape; converting HEU from older style military grade weapons will help reduce the affect of potentially diverting much needed LEU uranium away from commercial energy production to the production of new weapons system.

Additionally, while controversial and uncertain due to the war, the West could eventually support Russia’s sale of its military grade uranium on the open market to further incentivize denuclearization.

This technology has potential, and is one to watch.

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