The United States is generating nearly ten percent of its electricity from dismantled nuclear bombs, including Russian ones, says a report in The New York Times.
“It's a great, easy source” of fuel, says Marina V. Alekseyenkova, an analyst at Renaissance Capital and an expert on Russian nuclear industry that has profited from the arrangement since the end of the cold war.
But the report says if more diluted weapons-grade uranium is not secured soon, the pipeline could run dry, with ramifications for consumers, as well as some American utilities and their Russian suppliers.
Already nervous about a supply gap, utilities operating America's 104 nuclear reactors are paying as much attention to US President Obama's efforts to conclude a new arms treaty as the Nobel Peace Prize committee did.
In the last two decades, nuclear disarmament has become an integral part of the electricity industry, little known to most Americans.
Salvaged bomb material now generates about 10 percent of electricity in the United States — by comparison, hydropower generates about 6 percent and solar, biomass, wind and geothermal together account for 3 percent.
Utilities have been loath to publicize the Russian bomb supply line for fear of spooking consumers: the fuel from missiles that may have once been aimed at your home may now be lighting it.
But at times, recycled Soviet bomb cores have made up the majority of the American market for low-enriched uranium fuel.
Today, former bomb material from Russia accounts for 45 percent of the fuel in American nuclear reactors, while another 5 percent comes from American bombs, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade association in Washington.
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.
The program for dismantling and diluting the fuel cores of decommissioned Russian warheads — known informally as Megatons to Megawatts — is set to expire in 2013, just as the industry is trying to sell it forcefully as an alternative to coal-powered energy plants, which emit greenhouse gases.
Finding a substitute is a concern for utilities today because nuclear plants buy fuel three to five years in advance.
One potential new source is warheads that would become superfluous if the United States and Russia agree to new cuts under negotiations to renew the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires on Dec. 5.
Such negotiations revolve around the number of deployed weapons and delivery vehicles. There is no requirement in the treaty that bomb cores be destroyed. That is negotiated separately.
Enriching raw uranium is more expensive than converting highly enriched uranium to fuel grade.
To make fuel for electricity-generating reactors, uranium is enriched to less than 5 percent of the isotope U-235. To make weapons, it is enriched to about 90 percent U-235.