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Bombs away: Key uranium supply to U.S., from Russian weapons, ends. Time for thorium?

Posting in Energy

The U.S. lost a key supply of nuclear fuel this week as the last overseas shipment of uranium from Soviet warheads arrived at the Port of Baltimore, marking yet another reason why the country should start shifting to alternative reactor types.

Russia has been providing the U.S. with uranium from old nuclear missiles since 1993, under a 20-year deal known informally as the megaton-to-megawatts program agreed when Presidents  George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin led the two countries.

Russia had been "down blending" the highly enriched uranium into a low enriched state unsuitable for weapons but fit for nuclear power reactors. The uranium fueled half of all commercial U.S. nuclear power, according to the World Nuclear Association, and thus fed 10 percent of the country's overall electricity, NPR reported.

The deal came to its natural end this week as the final four cylinders of uranium arrived from St. Petersburg after nearly a 4-month journey that started in Russia's Krasnoyarsk Region, wrote World Nuclear News (WNN).

The fuel will go to Paducah, Kentucky storage facilities owned by the United States Enrichment Corp., (USEC) a publicly traded company which will sell it to nuclear operators. 

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz hailed the now defunct megaton-to-megawatt program for making "a substantial contribution both to the elimination of nuclear weapons material and to nuclear energy generation in the United States," WNN noted.

And as NPR pointed out, the arrangement was also good business, as the Russians made about $17 billion from it, and as USEC also made money by selling the fuel.

"This is the only time in history when disarmament was actually profitable," Anton Khlopkov, the director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies outside Moscow, told NPR.

But now that it's over, U.S. nuclear operators must assure other supplies of uranium. At this juncture, they should consider alternatives such as thorium fuel, which has a much higher energy content than uranium, is far more plentiful, leaves less long lived nuclear waste, and has a much lower chance of a meltdown.

Likewise, this inflection point in fuel supply should get the industry thinking seriously about deploying alternative reactor types such as molten salt and pebble bed reactors that would provide many operational, cost, efficiency, fuel use and safety advantages over conventional reactors.

Cover photo from Фальшивомонетчик via Wikimedia 

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— By on December 13, 2013, 4:51 AM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure