Future Unclear For 'Megatons To Megawatts' Program

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Ten percent of the electricity in the United States is generated using fuel made from dismantled Russian nuclear bombs, thanks to a 1993 agreement known as "Megatons to Megawatts." Guy Raz talks to Harvard professor Matthew Bunn about how the program began — and how its future is unclear.

GUY RAZ, Host:

Did you ever wonder where old decommissioned nuclear weapons go to die? Well, there's a good chance they're powering part of your house. About 10 percent of the electricity in the United States - 10 percent - comes from dismantled Russian nuclear bombs.

Now, what helped make those nukes available was the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and Russia. It's a treaty that expired last night.

Matthew Bunn, who teaches at Harvard, is an expert on this nuclear recycling project. It's known as Megatons to Megawatts.

Matthew Bunn, welcome to the show.

D: Pleasure to be here.

RAZ: Take us back to the early '90s. How did this idea form to take the uranium from Russian nuclear weapons and convert it into nuclear fuel?

D: The Soviet Union was falling apart and yet they had this huge amount of nuclear material that was very valuable and that needed to be secured, number one, but also the scientists and the experts working at those huge plants needed to be employed and we needed nuclear fuel for our nuclear power plants.

And so, the fairly simple idea was hatched - let's buy nuclear fuel made from blending down the highly enriched uranium in those Russian nuclear warheads.

RAZ: Now, I understand that half of all nuclear power in this country comes from those decommissioned Russian weapons. Is that true?

D: That's roughly right. It's a little under half at the moment, but it's in that ballpark.

RAZ: How many bombs have been dismantled this way?

D: The Russians don't tell us exactly, you know, how many bombs are being disassembled, but the amount of highly enriched uranium that has already been destroyed is enough for over 15,000 nuclear bombs.

RAZ: Fifteen thousand nuclear bombs.

D: Absolutely, have been permanently destroyed as a result of this deal.

RAZ: Can you take us through the process of how you convert, you know, an ICBM into electricity for my house?

D: They take the bombs off of the missiles. They disassemble the bombs, which means you take away the outer casing and the explosives from the actual nuclear material. Then you've got a hunk of highly enriched uranium metal, then they chop that up into essentially metal shavings, which they roast in an oven, and then they convert it into a gas form and they put it in a pipe, which then joins with a pipe that has much less enriched uranium and it mixes together and makes uranium with the enrichment that you need for a nuclear power plant, which is much less than the enrichment that you need for a nuclear bomb.

RAZ: Now, what are the economics of the setup? Is it a pretty good deal for the U.S.?

D: It's been a very good deal for the U.S. And, in fact, ironically, the way the deal has been set up, rather than it being the United States subsidizing Russia, in essence, Russia has been subsidizing inefficient uranium enrichment in the United States.

RAZ: How much do we pay the Russians for this?

D: So far, the Russians say that they have gotten over eight and a half billion dollars in cash and also nearly $3 billion in natural uranium.

RAZ: So we've paid them, you know, about $11 billion and presumably energy companies in this country have made money off of this?

D: That's exactly right. So they market it through a U.S. corporation called USEC. It used to be the U.S. Enrichment Corporation, but they're one of those that just changed their name to the acronym officially. And then USEC sells it to U.S. power companies. And USEC has definitely made some good profits from this deal over the course of its lifetime.

RAZ: Now, the Megatons to Megawatts project expires in 2013. Are the Russians interested in extending it?

D: The Russians are not remotely interested in extending it the way it is. We've managed to set it up in a way that costs them more and profits them less than just making new low-enriched uranium for reactors from scratch. But there are other ways to set it up that would be very profitable for them and would also serve some of their strategic interests in boosting their nuclear exports.

RAZ: What about old American nuclear bombs? Are we using those?

D: To some degree, not on as large a scale as we're using the Russian nuclear bombs, but there has been many tens of tons of U.S. highly enriched uranium from the military program that has been blended down and used. The Tennessee Valley Authority in particular is using quite a lot of blended down material from the military program and its reactors.

RAZ: Matthew Bunn is an associate professor at Harvard. He joined us from a nonproliferation conference at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Thanks so much.

D: Thank you.

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