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

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

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

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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.

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