Megatons to Megawatts

Mushroom cloud of the Tsar Bomba, 7 times the height of Mt Everest.
Mushroom cloud of the Tsar Bomba, 7 times the height of Mt Everest.

In 1991, MIT physicist Thomas L. Neff wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times. At the time, Gorbachev had agreed to dismantle thousands of nuclear warheads, but the Soviet economy couldn’t afford the process. Neff made a suggestion: let the US buy the uranium and use it as fuel. It would be a win for the US’ energy production, a win for Russia’s economy:

A typical warhead might yield fuel worth $200,000. Ten thousand warheads containing 200 tons of highly enriched uranium would be worth about $2 billion. This would be a good deal for the Soviets, for if they tried to sell such a volume commercially, prices would crash.

Not a year after Neff’s suggestion, President George H. W. Bush announced that the US and Russia would be moving forward with just such a deal. It became official the following year when President Clinton signed and initiated the Megatons to Megawatts Program. 500 metric tons of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) were to be converted to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) and sold to the US over a 20-year period.

President Yeltsin with President Clinton
President Yeltsin with President Clinton

To prevent political conflict, two commercial entities (United States Enrichment Corporation and Techsnabexport) were designated to do all selling and purchasing. Though renegotiations continued throughout the program, it became the most successful and largest nuclear non-proliferation program ever! 500 tons of HEU, amounting to approximately 20,008 warheads worth, was converted in Russia to LEU before being sold to the US.

The final shipment of LEU
The final shipment of LEU to USEC.

Today, 1 in 40 homes, hospitals, schools, and businesses in America are powered by this program. By 2017, the last rods of LEU will be purchased and by 2020 the fuel all used up. When the program ended in 2013, Russian energy officials wanted to discuss further programs. Current political stress leaves that possibility uncertain, but that doesn’t mean the end of nuclear non-proliferation programs. During the 20-year program, the US began dismantling some of their own warheads for use in power plants. A large 174.3 tons of our own HEU, in fact!

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