Iran is churning out nuclear fuel and may be on the brink of nuclear weapons capability. North Korea has already busted into the nuclear club, testing two bombs. The U.S. and its allies fear terrorists may someday acquire a nuclear weapon.
Today, however, we spotlight a rare international nuclear nonproliferation success that has made the world safer: A two-decade-long deal to recycle Russian nuclear warheads and turn the uranium into fuel to power American nuclear reactors. The agreement ― called “Megatons to Megawatts,” started in the ruins of the former Soviet Union. Russians, Americans ― the world ― feared that the Russian nuclear arsenal was vulnerable to thieves, terrorists and even Russian nuclear workers who weren‘t being regularly paid.
The idea for Megatons to Megawatts was to funnel billions in hard currency into Russia and help secure their weapons by melting down warheads for fuel. Result: Enough highly enriched uranium to fuel about 20,000 weapons has been safely converted into nuclear fuel to light homes and provide energy for Americans across the country. That’s 20,000 nuclear warheads not pointed at U.S. or European cities.
This deal has yielded a huge U.S. energy bonanza: The warheads, diluted and fabricated into nuclear fuel, produced nearly half of all U.S. commercial nuclear energy in the last 15 years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Overall, this program is responsible for nearly 10 percent of all U.S. electricity in the same period, the department says. Because of this program, 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium that could have been used in bombs instead has been used to light homes and run factories.
U.S. and Russian officials marked the end of the program this month with the last shipment of Russian fuel scheduled to reach the Port of Baltimore. In all, U.S. nuclear operators bought $17 billion of uranium from Russia. Cost to U.S. taxpayers: $287 million.
It would be hard to overstate the benefits of this deal. “This program provided a flow of money and thousands of jobs to nuclear facilities in Russia that were desperate for cash and jobs,” nuclear expert Matthew Bunn of Harvard tells us. Nuclear workers “who might have stolen highly enriched uranium, because they hadn‘t been paid in six months, instead got paid, had reasonable work to do.”
The program also helped beef up security for Russia’s nuclear sites. “It was a very important element of stabilizing the Russian nuclear complex at a critical time,” Bunn says.
Megatons to Megawatts became a prominent symbol of successful Russian-American cooperation on security issues.
Credit MIT physicist Thomas Neff for this pioneering idea. “I‘ve spent 15 years working in arms control and nuclear weapons proliferation, and I’m also an expert in the world‘s nuclear fuels markets ― those two things suddenly came together,” he told a reporter in 1993.
The way Neff figured it, for the cost of four B-2 bombers ― “whose mission was to go in and take out (Russian) missile silos” ― the U.S. neutralized 20,000 warheads.
Still, the deal almost didn’t happen. Neff told us that he initially couldn‘t convince U.S. officials to make the first move. And the Russians were suspicious of U.S. motives.
So Neff pitched the idea directly to Viktor Mikhailov, head of the Russian weapons program. Then he spent the better part of a dozen years patching up disagreements and “going back and forth between the two governments to keep the thing from collapsing.”
Ultimately both sides reaped what Neff promised two decades ago: A “fantastic deal.”
(MCT Information Services)