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May 4, 2014

Megatons to Megawatts: all about energy, carbon dioxide emissions

It was a little known program. The vessel, loaded with diluted weapons grade nuclear material from Russia, docked at a U.S. port at the end of 2013.

This was the last of 251 shipments. But let’s back up a bit.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early ‘90s, there was a real danger that their huge stockpile of nuclear weapons might fall into the wrong hands. Enter Thomas Neff, a physicist at MIT. He suggested that the U.S. buy the uranium after the weapon grade material was diluted from 90 percent to about 5 percent by the Russians. This uranium could then be used as fuel for electric utility nuclear reactors in the U.S. Thus was born the “Megatons to Megawatts” program (see circular emblem).

The unilateral arms reductions between Moscow and Washington left thousands of nuclear bombs in Russia’s poorly guarded bunkers. Under this program, about 20,000 Russian nuclear bombs were dismantled and processed and the fuel shipped to the U.S. The Russians needed cash, and America needed cheap power, and this $17 billion business arrangement was a win-win.

Enough energy was contained in these 15,432 tons of fissile material to provide electric power to all 20,000 cities and 115 million households in the U.S. for about two years (N.Y. Times, January 28, 2014).

One can get several levels of meaning from this program: a) the destruction of 20,000 nuclear warheads implies that a large number must remain, are still deployed and have enormous power for destruction; b) that this fuel came at a reasonable cost and helped stabilize bilateral relations; and c) the fact that 15,432 tons of nuclear material could provide all of the electrical energy needs for the United States for two years.

There is a direct and measurable heat energy connection between an atomic bomb explosion and the “heat” produced by elevated levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Scientists can readily calculate the amount of heat energy released by a Hiroshima-size atomic bomb, and also calculate the amount of “extra” heat absorbed by the 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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