Demilitarization of Nuclear Weapons

Trey Strobel
February 20, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Final Shipment from Megatons to Megawatts. (Courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration)

Nuclear energy is regarded as an environmentally friendly method for producing electricity. However, it is inaccurate to describe nuclear power as a form of renewable energy. In fact, the main material used as fuel, uranium-235, has a finite supply. At the current rate, there is only enough uranium to power nuclear plants through roughly the next 230 years. [1] There however does exist plentiful amounts of uranium in the stockpiles of nuclear armed nations. One option is to downgrade this nuclear material for use in power plants. By downgrading the weaponized uranium, it can be used to provide electricity and significantly augment the remaining supply of uranium available for nuclear power generation.

Down-Blending Process

Enriching uranium to a weaponized state is a challenge that only a few nations have been able to conquer. However, the process of downgrading these nuclear weapons is a much simpler after mastering the ability to enrich uranium. Down-blending is the process of mixing highly enriched uranium with depleted, natural, or low-enriched uranium to form a new non-highly enriched uranium material. The initial highly enriched uranium consists of 90% U-235. By diluting this material, the output can be brought down to around 5% U-235. This product from down-blending can then be used as fuel in nuclear power plants. The converted nuclear warheads can power nuclear plants and extend their ability to provide electricity for many years.

Past Implementations

By no means is idea of downgrading weaponized uranium into a commercial grade for power generation a novel idea. The Megatons to Megawatts program, Fig. 1, provides an excellent example of a successful historical program that has done just that. At the end of the Cold War, the United States became concerned with the condition in which Russia would store its surplus nuclear weapons. To help alleviate the problem, the U.S. agreed to purchase 20,000 Russian nuclear warheads to be converted into fuel for nuclear power facilities. [2] For two decades, these warheads provided 10% of all electricity consumed in the United States. [3] This arrangement was successfully carried out despite the much harsher political climate than exists today. Thus, the possibility of future demilitarization of nuclear warheads should receive serious consideration.

Future Feasibility

The feasibility of any future program depends largely on the willingness of countries to part with vast portions of their nuclear weapons stockpiles. Among others, the U.S. and Russia are prime candidates for future demilitarization of nuclear weapons. The United States' 7,260 warheads and Russia's 7,500 warheads combine to comprise more than 90% of the world's nuclear weapons. [4] Yet, each country possesses more than 5,000 warheads which are not deployed with operational forces. The roughly 2,000 operational warheads that each country deploys are more than sufficient to obliterate the planet. Due to the marginal strategic significance of their non-deployed warheads, the United States and Russia could easily provide some if not all of them for use in nuclear power plants. While other nations could act similarly, they are less significant and less likely to do so due to the relatively few warheads they possess.


It is highly unlikely that any nation would unilaterally agree to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpile in order to generate electricity. However, it is plausible that some nations could form a pact to do so. This would help power the world in an environmentally friendly manner and at the same time make the world a much safer place. Due to their excessive stockpiles of non deployed nuclear warheads, the United States and Russia would be prime partners in a program to down grade nuclear weapons for civilian use. By revisiting the days of the Megatons to Megawatts program, these two nuclear powers would be able to significantly extend the lifetime of uranium supplies for use as fuel in nuclear power plants. However, due to nuclear disarmament and the discouragement of new nuclear development, there will never be an exchange on the scale of Megatons to Megawatts again.

© Trey Strobel. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. Fetter, "How Long Will the World's Uranium Supplies Last?," Scientific American, 26 Jan 09.

[2] W. Broad, "From Warheads to Cheap Energy," New York Times, 27 Jan 2014.

[3] G. Brumfiel, "Megatons to Megawatts: Russian Warheads Fuel U.S. Power Plants," NPR, 11 Dec 13.

[4] "SIPRI Yearbook 2015 - Summary," Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2015.