From Russian warheads to megawatts

Uranium reprocessed for fuel in U.S. power plants went through Baltimore's port

December 14, 2013|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

A flatbed truck pulled away from the port of Baltimore last week carrying uranium once packed into nuclear warheads aimed at the United States.

The shipment, bound for a processing plant in Kentucky, marked the end of a 20-year collaboration to convert weapons-grade uranium from roughly 20,000 dismantled Russian warheads into fuel for commercial power plants in the United States. But the event, heralded by U.S. and Russian officials as a milestone in nuclear nonproliferation, also served as a reminder that hazardous and radioactive materials frequently pass through Baltimore via its busy port without fanfare or notice to the public.

"Megatons to Megawatts," as the collaboration was dubbed, "made a substantial contribution both to the elimination of nuclear weapons material and to nuclear energy generation in the United States," said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a news release announcing the final shipment.

Nearly every commercial reactor in the nation received fuel from the program, he said, including Exelon Corp.'s Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station 45 miles north of Baltimore in Delta, Pa.

Since the late 1990s, nearly 10 percent of the electricity generated in the United States has been fueled with uranium from Russia, according to USEC Inc., a Bethesda-based energy company that purchased the material to supply to commercial reactors. In all, more than 250 shipments were made, more than 10 a year on average, most through Baltimore, according to Jeremy Derryberry, a USEC spokesman.

Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, called Megatons to Megawatts "one of the most significant nonproliferation initiatives ever."

"The fuel itself was a nice addition to keep our prices low here," Fertel said in a videotaped statement, "and to make sure nuclear energy continued to be a low-cost, reliable provider."

Baltimore was the main port of entry because that's where shipper Atlantic Ro-Ro Carriers normally called, Derryberry said. It also was closer to the company's Paducah, Ky., facility than other ports, he said.

A spokesman for Baltimore's Rukert Marine Terminal, where the shipment was unloaded Tuesday, declined to discuss how it was handled, citing security concerns.

But photographs taken by the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration show four large steel drums being loaded onto a flatbed, which was then covered.

Before leaving Russia, the weapons-grade uranium was "down-blended" to reduce the concentration of fissionable material. Over the program's life, roughly 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium thus became 14,000 metric tons of low-enriched uranium suitable for use in commercial reactors. It was processed chemically to make it safer for shipping, then loaded into 2.5-ton reinforced steel cylinders, which in turn were encased in a "protective overpack" for the voyage from St. Petersburg, Russia.

"The radiation that's coming out of there is very limited," Derryberry said. "It's not escaping the container where it's a threat to anybody."

Environmental groups say the radiation risks from the shipments were relatively small, but they could pose chemical hazards if the containers broke open in a collision and fire. Toxic gases and vapors, such as hydrogen fluoride, could be released if the materials were exposed to fire or moisture, according to a Material Safety Data Sheet.

An environmental impact statement prepared to assess the risks projected that as many as 1,700 people could be harmed if such an accident occurred in a densely populated urban area, said Matthew McKinzie, nuclear program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The main hazard would be from exposure to corrosive chemicals, he said, rather than radiation.

Katherine Sammons, a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Agency, said all shipments of uranium hexafluoride comply with requirements set by the U.S. Department of Transportation specifying how they are to be packaged and what routes they can take, among other things. Nearly 10,000 cylinders were shipped that way from Russia to USEC's facilities in Kentucky and in Portsmouth, Ohio, "safely, securely and without incident," she said.

Connor Scott, a spokesman for Baltimore's office of emergency management, said city and state authorities are apprised of such shipments. Shippers handling hazardous wastes must post information on an online database available for fire departments and other emergency responders to consult if there is an incident or accident involving the vehicle, he said. The U.S. Coast Guard also oversees the safety of hazardous materials aboard vessels.

"There are safer things, like milk trucks," said Marvin Resnikoff, a consultant on nuclear waste management issues. But he said he was glad the reprocessing had occurred before shipment, because highly enriched uranium could be used to make a bomb.

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