President Obama has called for a world without nuclear weapons. As he prepares to whittle down America's arsenal, however, a crucial question remains: what to do with the bomb material? Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has decommissioned thousands of warheads—the explosive cores of which are in storage, pending a way to dispose of their plutonium. Leaving it intact is a potential security risk. But most of the alternatives (including launching it into the sun) have their own risks. While non-weapons-grade plutonium is used to fuel nuclear plants in Europe, it has never been processed out of a warhead and into a form for commercial reactors.
That could change. The Department of Energy is building a South Carolina–based plant that can convert America's plutonium stockpile into fuel. And late last month, the Tennessee Valley Authority agreed to evaluate it for use in its reactors near Chattanooga and Athens, Ala. If the TVA ultimately accepts the fuel, which energy analysts expect it to, the final home of much of the U.S. arsenal could be the heart of Dixie—and lightbulbs throughout the nation.