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Wed December 11, 2013

Megatons To Megawatts: Russian Warheads Fuel U.S. Power Plants

Originally published on Wed December 11, 2013 9:10 am

Here's a remarkable fact: For the past two decades, 10 percent of all the electricity consumed in the United States has come from Russian nuclear warheads.

It was all part of a deal struck at the end of the Cold War. That deal wraps up today, when the final shipment of fuel arrives at a U.S. facility.

The origins of the plan lie in the early 1990s. At the time, Philip Sewell was working for the U.S. Department of Energy. The Soviet Union had just disintegrated, and Sewell's job was to find ways to collaborate with the former adversaries.

In practice, this involved driving out into the Russian countryside, to military facilities that weren't even on the map. When Sewell got there, what he saw wasn't pretty.

"Windows were broken, gates were not locked, and there were very few people around," Sewell says.

But inside these crumbling buildings, the Russian government stored the uranium from thousands of decommissioned nuclear weapons. It seemed like practically anyone could walk off with stuff for a bomb.

Sewell and his colleagues wanted to get rid of this uranium. So they decided to try to persuade the Russians to sell their surplus to the U.S. After all, the stuff was just lying around.

Initially, the Russians refused. "It was a matter of pride, principle and patriotism," Sewell says. "Even though they didn't need that excess material, [and] they didn't have the money to protect it, they didn't want to let go of it."

But in the end they did let go. For one reason: money.

"Russia's nuclear industry badly needed the funding," says Anton Khlopkov, the director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies outside Moscow. He says Russia's nuclear complex had nearly a million workers who weren't getting paid a living wage.

So, in 1993 the deal was struck: The Russians would turn about 500 tons of bomb-grade uranium into nuclear fuel. The U.S. would buy it and sell it to commercial power plants here.

Khlopkov says it was a win-win. "This is the only time in history when disarmament was actually profitable," he says.

Very profitable. The Russians made around $17 billion. Sewell's government office was spun off into a private company — the United States Enrichment Corporation — and made money from the deal too. And the U.S. power plants got the uranium at a good price.

But all good things must come to an end, says Matthew Bunn at Harvard University.

"Russia is a totally different place today than it was twenty years ago," Bunn says. "As the Russian government is fond of saying, they're 'no longer on their knees.' "

Still Bunn says this deal will go down in history as one of the greatest diplomatic achievements ever.

"I mean, think about it – 20,000 bombs' worth of nuclear material, destroyed forever," he says. "[Bombs that] will never threaten anybody ever again."

The last shipment arrives today at a US storage facility. It will be sold off to utilities in coming years. So when you turn on the lights, feel good. Your bulb may be powered by what was once a bomb.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Here is a remarkable fact: For the past two decades, 10 percent of all the electricity consumed in the United States has come from old, Russian nuclear warheads. It was all part of a deal struck at the end of the Cold War, a deal that comes to an end today.

NPR's Geoff Brumfield has the story of how megatons of bombs got turned to megawatts of electricity.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In the early 1990s, Philip Sewell was working for the U.S. Department of Energy. The Soviet Union had just disintegrated, and Sewell's job was to find ways to collaborate with the former adversaries. This involved driving out into the Russian countryside to military facilities that weren't even on the map. When he got there what he saw wasn't pretty.

PHILIP SEWELL: Windows were broken, gates were not locked and there were very few people around.

BRUMFIEL: But inside these crumbling buildings, the Russian government stored the uranium from thousands of decommissioned nuclear weapons. This scared the bejesus out of him. It seemed like practically anyone could walk off with the stuff for a bomb. Sewell and his colleagues wanted to get rid of this uranium. So decided to try and persuade the Russians to sell their surplus to the U.S. After all, the stuff was just lying around.

SEWELL: If I have a 100 widgets and I only need 10, why should I hang on to the rest of the 90?

BRUMFIEL: And when you say a hundred widgets you actually mean 20,000 nuclear warheads.

SEWELL: Yes, I do.

BRUMFIEL: Initially, the Russians refused.

SEWELL: It was a matter of pride, principle and patriotism. Even though they didn't need that excess material, they didn't have the money to protect it, they didn't want to let go of it.

BRUMFIEL: But in the end they did let go. For one reason: Money.

ANTON KHLOPKOV: Russia's nuclear industry badly needed the funding.

BRUMFIEL: Anton Khlopkov heads the Center for Energy and Security Studies outside Moscow. He says Russia's nuclear complex was desperate for cash. In 1993, the deal was struck: The Russians would turn about 500 tons of bomb-grade uranium into nuclear fuel. The U.S. would buy it and sell it on to commercial power plants here.

Khlopkov says it was a win-win.

KHLOPKOV: This is the only time in history when disarmament was actually profitable.

BRUMFIEL: Disarmament was very profitable. The Russians made around $17 billion. Sewell's government office was spun out into a private company and made money off the deal, too. And the U.S. power plants got the uranium at a good price.

But all good things must come to an end, says Matthew Bunn at Harvard University.

MATTHEW BUNN: Russia is a totally different place today than it was 20 years ago. As the Russian government is fond of saying, they're no longer on their knees.

BRUMFIEL: Still Bunn says the deal will go down in history as one of the greatest diplomatic achievements ever.

BUNN: I mean, think about it: 20,000 bombs worth of nuclear material destroyed forever, will never threaten anybody ever again.

BRUMFIEL: The last shipment arrives today at a U.S. storage facility. It will be sold off to utilities in coming years. So when you turn on the lights, for now at least feel good. Your bulb may be powered by what was once a bomb.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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