How America uses Russian warheads to heat its homes

For 10 years shipments of uranium have been quietly changing hands

It is one of the most remarkable but little-known examples of post-Cold War co-operation between Russia and the US.

But the “Megatons-to-Megawatts” programme – which has seen 20,000 decommissioned Russian nuclear warheads shipped to the US to generate nuclear energy for American homes – is now coming to an end, after the final consignment completed its four-week sail from St Petersburg to Baltimore.

The final 160-tonne batch of low-enriched uranium marks the end of an unprecedented 20-year programme which has seen the US pay its old enemy of a total of $8bn (£5bn) for the unconventional fuel.

Having anchored in Baltimore, that final shipment was taken to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky, where it will be turned into uranium oxide pellets and farmed out to nuclear power plants across the US.

Reflecting on the scheme’s success earlier this month, programme manager John Welch said: “We have fuelled the production of clean, reliable energy through an historic non-proliferation programme.”

But it so nearly didn’t happen. Towards the end of the Cold War, Philip Sewell, one-time deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of Energy, was charged with finding ways to collaborate with former adversaries. His work involved driving out into the Russian countryside, to military facilities that weren’t even on the map – and what he saw didn’t inspire him with confidence.

“Windows were broken, gates were not locked, and there were very few people around,” Mr Sewell told The Independent. But inside those crumbling buildings, the Russian government stored the uranium from thousands of decommissioned nuclear weapons – material terrorists could have used to make a bomb.

Mr Sewell and his colleagues decided the situation was so dangerous that they needed to get rid of the uranium and set about persuading the Russians to sell their surplus to the US.

Initially, he was refused. “It was a matter of pride, principle and patriotism. Even though they didn’t need that excess material and they didn’t have the money to protect it, they didn’t want to let go of it,” he says.

But in the end, they had so little money that Russia yielded and the partnership was formed. Mr Sewell is now chief development officer at USEC, the US enriched uranium producer that ran the scheme.

The process began with the removal of the warheads and their highly enriched uranium metal components which were machined into metal shavings that were then heated and converted to a highly enriched uranium oxide. This was heated to produce a gas, which was mixed with a very low enriched uranium material and diluted to less than 5 per cent concentration of the fissionable uranium-235 isotope, a level too low to be of any military value but ideal for producing electric power.

This was then transferred to 2.5-ton steel cylinders, enclosed in protective shipping containers and sent to a storage and handling facility in St Petersburg. From there it was shipped to US fuel fabricators, where it was converted into uranium oxide pellets and fabricated into fuel assemblies, which were delivered to utilities for use in their nuclear reactors.

Although Megatons-to-Megawatts has now ended, Russia will continue to supply low enriched uranium to the US. That ten-year programme, which began on a small-scale this year, is expected to supply about half the level of Megatons-to-Megawatts by 2015, with the option to hike it to the same quantity if both parties agree. The difference is that, under the new contract, the supply will come from Russia’s commercial enrichment activities rather than from warheads.

The World Nuclear Association reports that world stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium weigh in at an estimated 260 tonnes, which could be turned into a little over one year’s world uranium production – about 53,500 tonnes.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
house + home
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Life and Style
Bats detect and react to wind speed and direction through sensors on their wings
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living