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

Thomas Wellock
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.

The Davy Crockett Weapons System, the Cold War and the NRC

Michael Norato
Chief of the Materials Decommissioning Branch

The Davy Crockett weapons system – a Cold War-era recoilless rifle – never actually saw battle. But there are remnants of it at several former training sites around the country, including two in Hawaii. How does that involve the NRC? A part of this system, the spotting army guy copyround, contained depleted uranium (DU). The NRC is now reviewing the Army’s application to possess and manage these spotting rounds in Hawaii.

The Atomic Energy Commission, the NRC’s predecessor, gave the Army a license to fabricate and distribute the spotting rounds. These low-speed projectiles helped to ensure accurate targeting. They emitted a puff a white smoke on impact. They did not explode, but they made it possible to see if aiming adjustments were needed.

In 2005, the Army found tail assemblies from the spotting rounds at the Schofield Barracks on Oahu. That discovery prompted a review of all sites where the Army trained with the system. The Army found DU at other sites, including the Pohakuloa Training Area on the big island of Hawaii. The Army has enough DU at these sites that, under NRC regulations, it is required to have a possession license. The Army applied for an NRC license in November 2008.

Natural uranium is made up of three “isotopes”—forms with different numbers of neutrons and distinct physical properties: U-234, U-235 and U-238. “Depleted” uranium has had U-234 and U-235 removed, increasing the percentage of U-238. Only slightly radioactive, DU can be toxic to the kidneys if ingested, such as by inhaling dust or drinking contaminated water. DU is about twice as dense as lead, making it useful in commercial and military applications.

An Army information booklet said the DU is in large fragments, not small dust particles. It is on operational ranges that are not accessible to the public. Data the Army collected and analyzed show there is no immediate health risk to people who work at the ranges or live nearby. The high density and large fragment size mean the DU cannot easily become airborne or move off-site.

The NRC asked the Army to provide plans for environmental radiation monitoring and security. The Army initially provided two plans that could apply to any of the sites where it used Davy Crockett spotting rounds. It later provided specific plans for the two sites in hawaiiHawaii.

The NRC is continuing to work with the Army to issue a license. As an NRC licensee, the Army must follow NRC regulations and standards for protecting the public and the environment. These may include monitoring radiation in the air and plants and further controlling access to the sites. The NRC will oversee that monitoring through periodic inspections and reviews. The Army will be able to amend its license to add other sites where it has found DU from the Davy Crockett system. The license and the Army’s monitoring and access control programs will support future site cleanup.

More information on DU is available on the Heath Physics Society’s website.

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