The end of the Cold War created a problem: what to do with the USSR’s nuke stockpile. The solution: a 1993 agreement to convert 500 metric tons of Soviet weapons-grade uranium into fuel for American nuclear plants. Russia got paid, the US got power, and scientists who might otherwise have gone rogue got jobs. Former warheads now fuel about 10 percent of the electricity the US consumes. When the program finishes in 2013, the equivalent of 20,000 Soviet missiles will have been repurposed to light the same US homes they were built to annihilate. Here’s how it’s being done.
Russians have classified some of this process, but it’s likely that technicians at disassembly plants in four cities, including the once-secret Sverdlovsk-45, first remove the missile casing and then separate the high explosives (which would have been used to set off the initial nuclear reaction) from the highly enriched uranium components.
Uranium is shipped by rail or truck in sealed containers to plants at one of two “closed” cities: Seversk or Ozersk. There, the material is machined into metal shavings with a lathe and roasted at 1,000 degrees Celsius in an ovenlike box, which oxidizes the metal and converts it to highly enriched uranium oxide powder (U308).
At Seversk or the Electrochemical Plant in central Russia, U38 is injected into a flame reactor, which combines the powder with gaseous fluorine to produce highly enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a white crystal resembling rock salt.
To transform the weapons-grade material into nuke fuel—called downblending—a T-pipe unit heats the crystalline UF6 to a gas and mixes it with 1.5 percent low enriched uranium gas. The resulting substance is about 5 percent low-enriched uranium-235—bad for bombs but great for nuclear plants.
The final product is loaded into supersturdy 2.5-ton steel containers, shipped by rail to Saint Petersburg, transported by cargo ship to the Port of Baltimore, and trucked to a uranium enrichment facility in Paducah, Kentucky. After testing to ensure it meets US standards, it’s sold to companies that turn the material into fuel rods.
Illustrations: Jameson Simpson