Getting rid of the uranium

Published: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 12:05 a.m.
There is a new urgency for the United States and Russia to put aside their political differences and work together to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In 1993, senior government officials from both countries signed an agreement in Moscow that marked the beginning of a bilateral program to destroy highly enriched uranium from Russia's dismantled nuclear weapons.
The United States agreed to buy 500 tons of highly enriched uranium over a period of 20 years. As a result, weapons-grade uranium is removed from old Soviet warheads - the same warheads that once were directed at U.S. cities - and diluted into nuclear power plant fuel in Russia.
This fuel is then sold to U.S. electric utility companies and used at nuclear power plants to produce electricity. Known as "megatons to megawatts," the program has eliminated highly enriched uranium from about 9,000 Hiroshima-type weapons.
To date, U.S. companies have paid Russia more than $3 billion for the highly enriched uranium - this constitutes one of the largest sources of currency for the Russian economy.
The money pays for the uranium conversion and keeps Russian nuclear scientists and workers employed.
What is remarkable about the program is this: Former Soviet highly enriched uranium fuel is being processed into a form that cannot be used to make weapons and is then "burned" at U.S. nuclear power plants to provide 10 percent of America's electricity.
This represents about half of the nuclear-generated electricity currently produced in the U.S. Because this is a commercial agreement between companies established by both countries, the program does not cost U.S. taxpayers a penny.
Unfortunately, the scope of the bilateral program is not large enough. So far, less than one-quarter of Russia's highly enriched uranium has been turned into reactor fuel.
And although the bilateral agreement has been expanded to cover Russia's plutonium as well, it provides for the conversion of only a relatively small amount of plutonium into reactor fuel.
There is still 800 tons of highly enriched uranium and another 200 tons of plutonium stored in facilities that have only the most rudimentary security measures.
After all, just a few pounds of plutonium - not tons - are enough to build a crude nuclear weapon that could devastate a major U.S. city.
Since Russia's weapons facilities are vulnerable targets for terrorists, we need to expand the program to eliminate far more of Russia's uranium and plutonium.
The surest way to avoid theft is to transform plutonium into reactor fuel as is being done with the highly enriched uranium. When plutonium is then mixed with uranium, it forms a mixed-oxide fuel that can be burned safely at nuclear power plants to generate electricity.
In fact, mixed-oxide fuel already is used at several power plants in France, which obtains 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy. Here in the United States, Duke Power Co. has announced plans to begin using mixed-oxide fuel at one of its nuclear power plants in South Carolina.
Preventing terrorist groups from getting their hands on nuclear weapons materials is an imperative. As former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, a leader in the effort to prevent nuclear terrorism, has said, "We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe."
The megatons to megawatts program can help us win that race.
Jack Ohanian is a professor emeritus of nuclear and radiological engineering at the University of Florida.

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