From warheads to cheap energy

The father of the US-Soviet atomic recycling program

As the Cold War ended in the late 1980s and early ’90s, a new fear arose amid the rejoice and relief: that atomic security might fail in the disintegrating Soviet Union, allowing its huge stockpile of nuclear warheads to fall into unfriendly hands.

The jitters intensified in late 1991 as Moscow announced plans to store thousands of weapons from missiles and bombers in what experts viewed as decrepit bunkers, policed by impoverished guards of dubious reliability.

Many officials and scientists worried. Few knew what to do.

That is when Thomas L. Neff, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hit on his improbable idea: Why not let Moscow sell the uranium from its retired weapons and dilute it into fuel for electric utilities in the United States, giving Russians desperately needed cash and Americans a cheap source of power?

Last month, Neff’s idea came to a happy conclusion as the last shipment of uranium from Russia arrived in the United States. In all, during two decades, the program known as Megatons to Megawatts turned 20,000 Russian warheads into electricity that has illuminated 1 in 10 U.S. light bulbs.

Neff fathered the atomic recycling program in spite (or perhaps because) of his lack of name recognition, his inexperience on the world stage and his modest credentials in arms control. Moreover, he not only came up with the original plan but shepherded it for decades.

“I was naïve,” Neff, 70, recalled in a recent interview. “I thought the idea would take care of itself.”

In fact, it required sheer doggedness and considerable skill in applying nuclear science to a global deal freighted with technical complexities and political uncertainties. Yet in the end, Neff noted, the mission was accomplished: Uranium once meant to obliterate American cities ended up endowing them with energy.

Nuclear experts hail it as a remarkable if poorly known chapter of atomic history. The two decades of bomb recycling, they say, not only reduced the threat of atomic terrorism and helped stabilize the former Soviet Union but achieved a major feat of nuclear disarmament — a popular goal that is seldom achieved.

In the nuclear age, the rare isotope uranium 235 has played starring roles in war and peace. When highly purified, to a level of 90 percent, it fuels atom bombs; at 5 percent, it powers nuclear reactors for electric utilities.

As the Cold War ended, Neff wondered whether these disparate worlds might be able to do business together. When Washington and Moscow announced major unilateral arms reductions in late 1991, he recalled, “I said: ‘Wow. What’s going to happen to all these weapons?’”

The beleaguered communist state, he feared, was already cutting back on nuclear upkeep, workers’ pay and dozens of measures meant to keep weapons safe. He also suspected that newly impoverished Russian nuclear scientists, once a pampered elite, might seek work elsewhere.

“It all sounded dangerous,” he said.

His solution was atomic recycling. The question was how to float the idea.

On Oct. 19, 1991, nuclear experts filed into the Diplomat Room of the State Plaza Hotel in Washington. The agenda of the nongovernmental meeting was demilitarization. A Soviet delegation attended, as did Neff.

Five days later, Neff made his idea public in an Op-ed article in The New York Times, “A Grand Uranium Bargain.” The illustration showed a kitchen pot and spoon floating eerily above a countertop and — just behind — an open window. Outside was a bomber.

“If we do not obtain the material,” he warned, shadowy agents in the former Soviet Union, perhaps uncontrolled by central authority, might seek to “sell weapons-grade materials to the highest bidders.”

The idea gained support in both Washington and Moscow. Carrying it out, through a tangle of conflicting state and commercial interests, was another matter. Neff was there to prod it along at almost every turn. In late December 1991, he was among the last Westerners to see the Soviet hammer and sickle flying over the Kremlin.

The first shipment of uranium arrived in 1995; 250 more followed over the next 18 years. Last month, a freighter sailing from St. Petersburg to Baltimore delivered the last shipment. Strapped into transport pallets were giant steel drums, each holding about two bombs’ worth of diluted uranium.

Colorful signs on the drums showed fluttering Russian and United States flags, with a message in large type: “20,000 Nuclear Warheads Eliminated.”