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Nuclear Weapons Accomplishments in the Chu Years

Departing Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s farewell letter is not the usual five paragraphs consisting of gradiose claims and bromides for the ages. At more than 3,750 words, it is ChuLandscapethe length of a college term paper or a magazine feature article. As interesting for what it leaves unsaid as for what it says, it says some quite interesting things about what DOE did to reduce the dangers of nuclear weapons during the Chu years:

  • “Our nuclear security teams have removed 1,340 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and 35 kilograms of plutonium from vulnerable sites throughout the world—enough material for approximately 55 nuclear weapons – including cleaning out 8 countries of all highly enriched uranium.
  • “The President secured ratification of the New Start Treaty, under which the U.S. and Russia agreed to further reduce the number of deployed warheads to lowest level since the 1950s – an 85 percent reduction from the darkest days of the Cold War.  And over the last four years, we have worked with our partners to downblend more than 100,000 kilograms of weapons grade uranium from the former Soviet Union, converting it to peaceful purposes like U.S. civilian nuclear reactors.  In fact, roughly 10 percent of America’s electricity comes from uranium that once threatened the United States as part of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
  • “We made historic progress in cleaning up nuclear contamination leftover from the Cold War, reducing the total footprint by nearly 75 percent and permanently cleaning up 690 square miles of contaminated land—an area more than 30 times the size of Manhattan.

One of those statements–the assertion that 10 percent of our electricity is being generated from uranium from former Soviet nuclear weapons–surely cannot be right. Since nuclear energy accounts for just 20 percent of U.S. electricity, Chu’s claim would imply that half our nuclear electricity is being made from Russian nuclear material. Apart from that one fact-checking lapse, Chu’s points seem sound. Not the least of them concern nuclear clean-ups, where Chu has some telling language on the subject of Hanford, Washington, where the first plutonium for U.S. atomic bombs was produced. Hanford is notoriously a festering mess; it seems, to judge from the tenor of Chu’s words, that the Department of Energy finally is knocking heads together hard and insisting progress be made:

“… [E]nvironmental clean-up projects still have considerable technical and project management challenges. As an example, the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant at Hanford is the most complex and largest nuclear project in history. For the past 6 months, I have been working with six extremely talented people, typically devoting 5-10 hours a week that include nights and weekends. We have also been working intimately with a restructured EM management team to overcome remaining challenges. We have invited ecologists in the State of Washington to join in our frank discussions and the DOE team is rebuilding trust that had broken down over the past decade. I am especially appreciative of Governor Gregoire for her trust and support over the past six months.”

If Chu’s personal efforts with respect to Hanford pay off in the long run, that alone will guarantee his reputation as a hard-working, innovative and problem-solving energy secretary.



William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.