Sunday, August 22, 2004

Everyone who follows current events is aware of the disturbing news about nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea, and the danger that terrorist organizations like al Qaeda could acquire nuclear weapons. But there is also good news that has gone largely unreported: the destruction of Russian nuclear warheads and their conversion into fuel for American power plants.

Earlier this year, the United States and Russia marked the 10th anniversary of their government-to-government agreement to eliminate enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) to build 20,000 warheads. Since deliveries of the fuel from nuclear warheads began in June 1995, the program has resulted in the destruction of more than 8,000 warheads from ex-Soviet nuclear arsenals. By the conclusion of the agreement in 2013, some 500 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium (an amount equivalent to 20,000 nuclear warheads) will be converted into fuel for use in electric power plants in the United States and elsewhere. This is enough electricity to power the United States for two years.

The program, known as Megatons to Megawatts, is implemented by the U.S. Enrichment Corp., a global energy company that operates the only uranium enrichment facility in this country, located in Paducah, Ky. Today, approximately 10 percent of America’s electricity comes from recycled nuclear warheads. Weapons destroyed under the program include the deadly SS-20 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, which the Soviet Union used to target Western Europe during the 1980s. The $12 billion program is privately funded through commercial sales of low-enriched nuclear fuel.

The program works as follows: Highly enriched uranium is taken from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons and blended into low-enriched uranium (LEU) for use in commercial nuclear power plants. The Department of Energy is responsible for ensuring that the material from the Russian HEU comes from dismantled nuclear weapons.

Megawatts to Megatons has created an important, powerful relationship between U.S. national security and the continued development of this country’s nuclear industry. The healthier the U.S. nuclear industry is, the greater the market for uranium from the former Soviet Union. Growing demand for nuclear power in the United States means that more weapons-grade uranium from Russia can be converted into energy for peaceful purposes.

The American marketplace can help ensure that less dangerous material will be lying around in Russia, vulnerable to theft and black-market sales to terrorists.

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