One of the greatest problems in the post-Cold War era has been what to do with the leftover highly enriched uranium [HEU], also known as weapons-grade uranium. When the US and USSR were engaged in the nuclear arms race, tons of the stuff was produced in the hopes it would never be used. The 1993 U.S.-Russia HEU Purchase Agreement was one way to get rid of it, “downblending” HEU into low enriched uranium [LEU] suitable for use in nuclear power plants not for incinerating cities.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, for my money one of the most important agencies in the world, announced a few days ago that the agreement has processed 450 metric tons of HEU into LEU. With a target of 500 metric tons by 2013, this means we’ve passed the 90% mark.
The NNSA said in a press release, “Since 1995, the NNSA program has conducted 335 monitoring visits to Russian HEU processing facilities and since 2000, U.S. experts have monitored the elimination of 30 metric tons of Russian HEU each year – the yearly equivalent of about 1,200 nuclear weapons. By the end of 2013, NNSA will have monitored the elimination of HEU roughly equivalent to 20,000 nuclear weapons.” At their peak, the Americans had 31,255 warheads of various sizes, and the Soviets possessed something like 45,000.
The Megatons-to-Megawatts arrangement isn’t just a one-way street, though. NNSA states “The Russian Federation also conducts reciprocal monitoring activities at U.S. facilities to confirm the exclusively peaceful use of all LEU delivered under the agreement. The agreement will be fully completed in the 2014-2015 timeframe when all LEU is manufactured into nuclear fuel and all final accounting and transparency documents are provided to the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom).”
Our friends over at Pravda report, “The cost of the fuel delivered to the United States has already exceeded nine billion dollars. ‘For 20 years of the execution of the agreement the state budget received a total of about $18 billion. At the very beginning, when we signed the contract, its cost was estimated at about $12 billion,’ Alex Grigoriev, CEO of TENEX’ told radio station ‘Echo of Moscow’. This company is part of the ‘Rosatom,’ and provides over 40 percent of the world demand for uranium enrichment services for nuclear power plants with reactors of Western design.”
Just how much electricity does all this amount to? When the LEU is all used up, it will have generated sufficient electricity to run the US grid for two full years, and LEU from Russia accounts for 45% of the nuclear fuel currently used in the US – where nuclear reactors provide 20% of the nation’s power.
For those of us who were born in the Cold War era (the Cuban Missile Crisis was a few weeks before my second birthday), this is still almost unimaginable. I did duck-and-cover drills in first grade. I grew up not far from Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, not far from Lowery Air Force Base, Buckley Air Field, and the Rocky Mountain Nuclear Arsenal – these days it would be called a “target-rich environment.” Now, Soviet warheads are being turned into fuel rods to power my TV, laptop and refrigerator. In diplomacy, that’s what winning looks like.