World and Nation

Last shipment of nuclear fuel from Russian bombs departs

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The final shipment of civilian nuclear reactor fuel made from Soviet atomic bombs left port for the United States on Thursday, ending a post-Cold War program that has been a long-running boon for the American nuclear power industry.

Over its 20-year course, the program, known as Megatons to Megawatts, supplied the energy for about 10 percent of all the electricity generated in the United States, far surpassing the electricity derived from solar, hydro and biofuels as well as other alternative sources. Though not well known, the program, which began in 1993, has shaped the American uranium fuel market for two decades.

In that time, the Russians dismantled about 20,000 nuclear warheads, processed their high-enriched uranium cores into low-enriched fuel, and sent it to the United States. Russian nuclear fuel is now expected to drop from about 50 percent of the American market to 20 percent. Prices could rise for utilities.

In a cold rain on a pier at the St. Petersburg port on Thursday, dignitaries from the United States and Russia signed placards attached to the 10 final pallets. Each pallet held four cylinders of low-enriched uranium. It took about two nuclear bombs to make each of the chunky cylinders, which look like oversize water heaters.

“Congratulations on the last shipment! Stay safe!” Rose Gottemoeller, the acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, wrote on one cylinder.

“Happy Trails to Baltimore,” Gregory Dwyer, a director of inspections of the Russian program at the Department of Energy, wrote on another canister, indicating where the shipment will end up in the United States.

The entire shipment contained uranium from about 80 warheads.

“Our focus globally is to minimize high-enriched uranium wherever it is found,” Gottemoeller said in an interview as she watched the canisters of processed bomb cores being hoisted onto a freighter, the Atlantic Navigator.

Because of the long lead time that utilities need to buy fuel, the end of this supply next month — the ship is due in Baltimore on Dec. 10 — will hardly come as a shock to the industry. The Russian supplier of the processed warhead cores, a subsidiary of the state nuclear company Rosatom, has signed commercial contracts with the U.S. Enrichment Corp. and about a dozen utilities. These are to supply fuel enriched from virgin uranium, rather than blended down from weapons-grade metal.

“This has been well planned,” Gottemoeller said in an interview. “The industry prepared for the winding down of deliveries. The uranium market and this program have been linked up pretty well.”

Though the last Russian fuel left on Thursday, it will remain in the American supply chain for many more years. The Department of Energy expects the last delivery to utilities to be in 2017. The fuel would then operate in reactors for several years, keeping the lights on in some parts of America beyond 2020.