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Nuclear Swords into Electric Power Plowshares: The Megatons to Megawatts Program

Thomas Wellock
Historian
 
Maureen Conley
Public Affairs Officer
 

You may be surprised to know about 10 percent of recent U.S. electricity production has been fueled by uranium from Soviet nuclear warheads that once targeted the United States. This ironic ending to the Cold War came from the Megatons to Megawatts (MTM) program—a 1993 agreement between the U.S. and Russia to reduce stockpiles of Soviet-era highly enriched uranium.

Megatons_To_Megawatts_Logo2Purchased by private U.S. firms for use in commercial reactor fuel, the final MTM shipment was delivered to the U.S last month. In all, about 20,000 nuclear warheads were eliminated.

The program was the brainchild of MIT international affairs expert Thomas Neff, who proposed it just two months after the failed August 1991 coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It grew out of the recognition that the remnants of the former Soviet Union threatened global security and economic stability.

The U.S. and Soviets had signed agreements requiring disposal of large quantities of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. Neff worried the desperate economic situation in Russia might lead unemployed Soviet nuclear experts to sell their expertise — or the surplus uranium — to terrorist organizations and rogue nations. Even if sold through legitimate channels, Neff warned, Russia’s weapons material could depress uranium prices and bankrupt Western energy firms.

Neff’s proposed solution closely matched the final agreement. The deal provided trade credits to the Russians for weapons uranium downblended, or diluted, and shipped to the United States over a period of many years. The purchases provided Russia with a regular supply of currency, and the process of converting the highly enriched uranium to lower enrichments suitable for power plants would employ former Soviet experts.

The 1993 agreement was signed by Russian and U.S. negotiators, but the private sector entirely financed the purchases. USEC Inc., a U.S. supplier of uranium to fuel commercial power reactors, bought more than 14,000 metric tons of low enriched uranium from Russian­chartered exporter Tenex. This uranium came from 500 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium. USEC in turn would deliver the material to U.S. plants that made it into nuclear fuel. Nearly every commercial reactor in the U.S. has bought this fuel and turned it into electricity. Tenex says the material could power a city of one million residents for 500 years.

The agreement encouraged further disarmament as the United States voluntarily downblended a portion of its own uranium stockpile for use in nuclear power plants. “This program represented the pinnacle of U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation, and . . . [it] puts another nail in the coffin of the Cold War,” said Bruce Blair, a disarmament advocate.

Although privately financed, Megatons to Megawatts required close supervision by both governments. While the NRC was not directly involved in the negotiations, we did participate in ensuring the program was implemented safely. The NRC licenses and inspects both the plants that made the downblended uranium into fuel and the reactors that burned it.

We are happy to have played a role in closing this chapter of the Cold War.

10 responses to “Nuclear Swords into Electric Power Plowshares: The Megatons to Megawatts Program

  1. CaptD January 3, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    A short sighted article since the NRC has patted itself on the back for overseeing exchanging weapon grade material for fuel rods but you forgot to discuss where all those OLD fuel rods are and especially where all the high burn-up fuel rods are now; plus where they will continue to be for the next 30 to 60 years…

    If I was grading your article I’d give it a C- since it does not give a complete picture… The NRC should do better.

    • Rich Andrews January 3, 2014 at 6:23 pm

      CaptD, let’s help the NRC get a better grade. Here is some info that might have helped them give a more complete picture.

      Other Countries Can, Why Can’t We?!
      The following is from an article by the World Nuclear Association…

      “A key, nearly unique, characteristic of nuclear energy is that used fuel may be reprocessed to recover fissile and fertile materials in order to provide fresh fuel for existing and future nuclear power plants. Several European countries, Russia and Japan have had a policy to reprocess used nuclear fuel, although government policies in many other countries have not yet addressed the various aspects of reprocessing.
      Over the last 50 years the principal reason for reprocessing used fuel has been to recover unused uranium and plutonium in the used fuel elements and thereby close the fuel cycle, gaining some 25% to 30% more energy from the original uranium in the process and thus contributing to energy security. A secondary reason is to reduce the volume of material to be disposed of as high-level waste to about one fifth. In addition, the level of radioactivity in the waste from reprocessing is much smaller and after about 100 years falls much more rapidly than in used fuel itself.
      In the last decade interest has grown in recovering all long-lived actinides together (i.e. with plutonium) so as to recycle them in fast reactors so that they end up as short-lived fission products. This policy is driven by two factors: reducing the long-term radioactivity in high-level wastes, and reducing the possibility of plutonium being diverted from civil use – thereby increasing proliferation resistance of the fuel cycle. If used fuel is not reprocessed, then in a century or two the built-in radiological protection will have diminished, allowing the plutonium to be recovered for illicit use.”

    • Myla Reson January 5, 2014 at 1:08 pm

      Thanks Captain D – you took the words right out of my mouth.
      My questions for the NRC are: (1) What is the burnup rate for the fuel converted from the old Soviet warheads? (2) How much high burnup spent nuclear fuel has accumulated as a result of this program? (3) And wouldn’t a better title for your blog post be Nuclear Swords into High Burnup Spent Fuel that We Still Don’t Know How to Store or Transport for as Long as it Remains Lethal”?

      • Moderator January 7, 2014 at 12:25 pm

        Soviet HEU downblended into LEU went to nuclear fuel manufacturers together with LEU from other sources. There is no way to segregate the Russian-origin material from domestic sources.

        Maureen Conley

  2. Rich Andrews January 2, 2014 at 7:51 pm

    Try Keeping a Promise for a Change
    Here you go again tooting your own horn NRC. You brag about taking Soviet nuclear material to provide more fuel for US nuclear plants while you have done nothing to accept used fuel from those same plants. You made a promise over half a century ago to take ownership of spent fuel at US power plants and to dispose of it safely. Instead you have allowed this dangerous radioactive waste to pile up at nuclear power plants all over the country. You have dragged your feet most recently on a safe repository at Yucca Mountain and long ago refused to proceed on reprocessing spent fuel. Reprocessing would not only vastly reduce the amount of radioactive waste that would need to be disposed of but would also recycle unused fuel for US reactors. When NRC are you going to own up to your original promise?! Stop patting yourself on the back long enough to proceed on honoring a promise for a change.

    • Moderator January 7, 2014 at 12:37 pm

      To be clear, Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, Congress directed the US Department of Energy, not the NRC, to take possession of spent fuel from US commercial power plants and dispose of it in a deep geologic underground repository. The DOE published its blueprint for the future of spent fuel management a year ago, based on recommendations from the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

      Maureen Conley

      • Rich Andrews January 7, 2014 at 1:48 pm

        Thanks for the prompt response.
        So DOE took the NRC off the hook for spent fuel way back in 1982. Has the NRC supported in any way DOE’s efforts to achieve that goal? Especially since this waste is piling up around the USA in NRC-licensed nuclear power plant spent fuel pools. As you know an aircraft crash into or a terrorist attack on any one of these pools would be an unprecedented catastrophe akin to Fukushima.
        I am excited to learn that after only 30 years DOE has come up with a “plan”. Pardon me for being a bit skeptical, but a plan prompted by a Presidential Blue Ribbon Committee does not give me a warm-fuzzy, especially depending on the President who commissioned it. Could you summarize the plan as it pertains to spent fuel or give me a link to the DOE “plan” so I could check it out?
        Thanks.

  3. William R. Harris, Secretary, Foundation for Resilent Societies January 2, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is to be commended for its participation in assuring that down-blended uranium fuels could operate safely, and indirectly facilitate the dismantling of excess nuclear warheads. primarily from the Russian Federation.
    An indirect benefit of down-blending for new nuclear fuel assemblies, financed by the private sector, may have been to stabilize yellowcake prices. Since the Ford and Carter Administrations in the late 1970s, there have been recurring concerns that rising yellowcake prices could encourage the reprocessing of spent fuels, and potentially increase stocks of plutonium. Unsafeguarded plutonium creates proliferation risks.
    Reutilizing highly enriched uranium (HEU) from weapons, through conversion into low enriched uranium fuel for electric production both neutralizes excess nuclear weapons and reduces incentives for Pu reprocessing.
    We should also be thankful for the work of DOE’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative since the year 2004 to substitute lower enriched uranium in at least 66 foreign research reactors in 34 nations that utilized highly enriched uranium. And at least 22 HEU research reactors in 11 nations have been shut down entirely. These efforts to reutilize highly enriched uranium make financial sense and make for a safer world.

  4. stock January 2, 2014 at 11:10 am

    I am usually pretty critical of the NRC, but Ill give you an atta-boy on that one.

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