Before John F. Kennedy became president, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. During his time on Capitol Hill, he visited the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Here, he’s photographed with ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg. Can you guess the year this photo was taken and who accompanied the then-Senator Kennedy? Extra points if you know what nuclear technology Weinberg is credited with spearheading. (Photo taken by Ed Westcott/DOE)
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.
Purchased 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.
Offshore Power Systems, apparently, did not appreciate that putting land-based reactors out to sea was bound to raise new safety, environmental and regulatory questions. Concerns about ship collisions, off-shore fishing grounds, barge sinking and the challenge of creating a new regulatory process for floating reactors were just some of the unique issues facing regulators.
Even the trade press raised concerns. Nuclear News worried about the “incredibly tangled mass of overlapping jurisdictions, state, national, and international law, inter-agency authority” that included new players such as the U.S. Coast Guard.
Events conspired to worsen OPS’s prospects. The oil crisis that began in 1973 made construction financing expensive and slowed electricity consumption. Facing slack demand, PSEG postponed delivery of the first floating plant from 1981 to 1985 and later to 1988. Tenneco backed out of the OPS partnership in 1975. With the entire enterprise threatened, Westinghouse and the Florida Congressional delegation asked the federal government to purchase four plants. But, the prospect of “bailing out” OPS did not appeal to officials in the Ford Administration. The purchase proposal died.
Floating reactors did not solve regulatory or political problems. The production facility in Jacksonville needed an NRC manufacturing license. There were so many technical and regulatory uncertainties that the licensing review ran three years behind schedule. A 1978 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office criticized the NRC for what it believed was an incomplete safety review, particularly for not accounting for impacts on the ocean ecosystem during an accident where a melting reactor core broke through the bottom of the barge.
Local and state opposition to the plant was intense. Nearby counties voted in non-binding referendums 2 to 1 against the Atlantic Generating Station, and the New Jersey legislature refused to introduce a bill to turn the offshore site over to PSEG.
Westinghouse held out hope for a brighter future; PSEG didn’t. In late 1978, the utility announced it canceled its orders for all four of its floating plants. Slack demand, it noted, was “the only reason” for the cancellations. “We simply will not need these units” in the foreseeable future, a utility official admitted.
Others blamed excessive regulation. In March 1979, John O’Leary, a Department of Energy deputy secretary, provided to the White House a “grim—even alarming report,” as one staffer said, that the NRC delays with the OPS license were symptomatic of a larger problem. “It has become impossible to build energy plants in America” O’Leary said, due to excessive environmental regulations and an indecisive bureaucracy. Environmental laws, O’Leary complained, had created “a chain of hurdles which effectively kill energy projects” and damage to the nation’s economy. He wanted presidential action.
Events rendered O’Leary’s plea for action moot. Two and a half weeks later the Three Mile Island accident occurred, ending any hope of an imminent industry rebound. The accident raised anew questions about a core melt accident and further delayed the manufacturing license. The NRC did not issue a license until 1982. In 1984, Westinghouse formally abandoned the OPS enterprise, dismantled the Jacksonville facility, and sold its huge crane to China.
Going to sea, OPS discovered, did not allow it to escape the problems that beset nuclear power. A novel technological solution could not overcome public distrust and economic, technical and regulatory uncertainty. We shall see how Russia handles the challenges.
Few events altered nuclear power regulation as much as the Browns Ferry Unit 1 fire. In March 1975, thousands of electrical cables burned for about seven and a half hours, disabling all of Unit 1’s and many of Unit 2’s emergency core cooling systems. Only creative action by plant operators prevented reactor damage, and only a resort to water hoses rather than portable CO2 fire extinguishers quenched the flames.
The NRC was just two months old when the fire started, and it enacted sweeping reforms to enhance reactor safety from fires, including fire detection, prevention and suppression.
Browns Ferry was so momentous that any discussion of fire history before it often receives little attention and is mistakenly dismissed in a few sentences: The NRC’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, didn’t consider fire a nuclear safety issue. It erred in deferring to non-nuclear standards set by property insurance companies and engineering associations. Such deference was inadequate because insurance standards were designed to limit property damage rather than prevent a reactor accident.
In fact, the fire can’t be so easily blamed on AEC inattention. The agency did believe fire was a reactor safety issue, and it insisted on special fire protection designs that proved inadequate at Browns Ferry. Its key error, then, wasn’t in deferring to non-nuclear fire insurance experts; it sometimes didn’t defer enough. Most egregiously, nuclear regulators rejected expert recommendations on fire suppression systems believing that nuclear safety considerations demanded alternative designs.
By the late 1960s, fire protection experts favored water as a fire suppressant. Tests and experience showed water was the most desirable fire suppressant even in areas with electrical equipment because of its ability to rapidly smother and cool a growing fire. Businesses used water suppression in diverse applications such as computer factories and electric cable rooms in steel mills. Even AEC weapons plants added water to supplement their CO2-based systems. Fire insurance associations recommended water-based fire suppression systems for civilian nuclear power plants.
AEC regulators and the industry disagreed. Having limited nuclear-specific data on fires, they operated from the perspective that electricity and water didn’t mix. They feared water would cause short circuits and disable backup reactor safety systems. With AEC encouragement, new plants commonly installed fixed CO2 fire extinguishing systems in electrical areas, as was done in Browns Ferry’s damaged cable spreading room. In addition, the cable spreading room was not equipped with fire hoses and water supply piping called standpipes.
David Notley, the NRC’s first fire safety expert, noted the ironic result of the AEC’s ignorance on fire suppression. Believing that nuclear power was a special exception to standard industrial practice, regulators dismissed non-nuclear experience that might have improved reactor safety. Had water been used early in the 1975 fire, the duration of the fire, the damage to the plant and the challenge to safely shutting down the plant would have been significantly reduced.
The AEC did treat fire as a reactor safety threat, but it pursued ill-informed solutions. Chastened by Browns Ferry, the NRC expanded its fire regulations and a launched a fire research program that have measurably improved plant safety.
The NRC is expanding its social media program next week by launching a pilot of a live discussion platform known as NRC Chat. The first Chat is scheduled for April 30 at 2 p.m. EST on the subject of history of U.S. nuclear power with the NRC’s historian, Tom Wellock.
The Chat is similar to the existing NRC blog, and is also hosted on WordPress, but it features a real-time discussion. Each one-hour Chat session will focus on a specific issue with an NRC expert responding to the questions. Some sessions we hope to hold in the future will include such topics as Japan “lessons learned” activities, hurricane preparedness and “waste confidence.”
Chat addresses a key element in NRC’s Open Government Plan — enhancing the agency’s communication with the public and other stakeholders through the use of social media technologies. Information on Chat comment guidelines is here.
We’ll post the future schedule and topics soon, and will always tweet reminders. We expect to hold two Chat sessions a month for about six months. We’ll then evaluate the platform, and solicit your input.
You can submit questions early by sending them to email@example.com. Please put CHAT in the subject line.
We will continue to add more historical images on a regular basis. These photos are open domain and may be used for all non-commercial purposes (although we do like a photo credit). You do not need a Flickr account to view or download the images.
To learn more about NRC photos on Flickr read our previous NRC blog post.
Despite not seeing eye-to-eye on many matters, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, nevertheless, continued to exchange information about nuclear reactor safety even during the Cold War. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the information exchanges stopped. It wasn’t until the 1985 Reagan-Gobachev summit that discussions were restarted.
After productive meetings with U.S. nuclear safety experts shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in April 1986, Soviet expert Anfronik Petrosyants noted: “We hope we have broken the ice of mistrust.”
It appeared something good for reactor safety and Cold War relations might come from the disaster.
A year and a half later the initial talks bore fruit. On the second anniversary of Chernobyl, NRC Chairman Lando Zech met with his Soviet regulatory counterpart for a signing ceremony at the U.S. State Department establishing a joint coordinating committee of U.S. and Soviet experts to share information on nuclear safety issues. It was an important moment for the world. As Hans Blix, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, observed: “a radiation cloud doesn’t know international boundaries.”
But it was an uneasy relationship. Both sides entered negotiations with trepidation born of a long Cold War. In March 1987, an NRC safety team led by Commissioner Frederick Bernthal toured Soviet facilities, including two undamaged reactors at Chernobyl. The delegation reported that Soviet experts were not eager to discuss the possibility of formal cooperation with the U.S. on safety matters. They only agreed to further talks.
At home, some U.S. officials suspected the negotiations were a trap. Carol Kessler, an NRC and State Department staffer, recalled strong opposition to the NRC initiative from military representatives. An officer, she recalled, “stood up on a chair in [an] inter-agency meeting and explained to us how were all ruining the lives of our grandchildren [by negotiating with the Soviets]. It was the most amazing meeting I have ever seen.”
Nevertheless, negotiations gained momentum with support from President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. In December 1987, the two leaders jointly called for a bilateral agreement on reactor safety. The memorandum was signed just four months later. It created 10 working groups to work on safety regulation, operations, research, and radiation protection. Similar agreements quickly followed with other Soviet-bloc nations.
The Soviet memorandum marked a key shift for the NRC in international affairs that outlived the fall of communism. Surrounded by reactors that did not meet Western safety standards and bereft of regulatory agencies like the NRC, former communist countries desperately needed assistance. The bilateral agreements allowed the agency to become an ambassador among them advocating that they establish Western safety standards and regulations.
In a future post, I will detail the 20-year international effort to Westernize the communist nuclear regulatory system.