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Originally published Monday, February 6, 2012 at 4:07 PM

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Megatons to megawatts: rising to the challenge of nuclear security

Despite worries over Iran's nuclear efforts, there is a success story to be told about the global initiative to turn megatons into megawatts, says nuclear-program consultant Edgar Berkey.

Special to The Times

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WHILE the U.S. has been rightly concerned with monitoring Iran's ominous nuclear activities, we should also take note of the significant but less-well-known success already achieved with the nuclear nonproliferation program known as "megatons to megawatts."

Under this program, over the past 18 years, some of the fuel being used at U.S. nuclear power plants to generate electricity has come from Russian nuclear warheads under a commercially financed international agreement to reduce excess nuclear-weapons materials.

To date, more than 440 metric tons of Russia's highly enriched uranium — equal to about 17,500 nuclear warheads — has been down-blended into low-enriched uranium fuel to produce electricity for American households, businesses and industries. In fact, about 10 percent of our total electricity now comes from nuclear fuel containing former Russian weapons-grade uranium. The outcome is tangible destruction of nuclear weapons, demonstrable enhancement of world security and production of useful electricity.

This latest news about the program, which was negotiated during the administration of George H.W. Bush and signed in 1993, comes from USEC, formerly the U.S. Enrichment Corporation, the U.S. commercial firm authorized to buy down-blended fuel from Russia and sell it to U.S. electric utilities.

So far, Russia has received $8 billion for its uranium, some of which it has used to tighten security around its remaining nuclear stockpiles. When the bilateral agreement ends in 2013, about 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, equal to 20,000 Russian warheads, will have been turned into electricity and eliminated. The U.S. is also converting its excess highly enriched uranium into reactor fuel and each country has agreed to eliminate 38 metric tons of plutonium by encasing it in glass or reprocessing it into fuel for nuclear power reactors.

This agreement arose in the early 1990s from the alarming lack of security at Russia's nuclear-weapons installations. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were insufficient funds to pay military guards, so preventing theft of nuclear-weapons materials to sell on the black market became a major concern. Though U.S. authorities reported all weapons-grade uranium and plutonium were recovered before they could be used by rogue governments or terrorist groups, the continuing risk could not be ignored, leading to the U.S.-Russian agreement and tighter security at Russian nuclear stockpiles.

However, the bad news now is that nuclear-security flaws have spread farther around the world. In a recently published study, 32 nations were identified as having nuclear-weapons materials, nearly a quarter of them with serious security issues. The study, co-authored by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a D.C.-based advocacy group founded by former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, concluded that no common international system exists for regulating how nuclear-weapons materials are produced, tracked, protected and controlled. This lack of transparency prevents knowing what other countries are doing to build accountability around nuclear-materials security.

With the success of the megatons-to-megawatts program and increasing concern about international nuclear security, now is an ideal time to do something more about this challenge. Over the past two decades, 19 countries have eliminated or removed their weapons-usable nuclear materials, most through the U.S. Department of Energy's Global Threat Reduction Initiative, a program that helps countries return highly enriched uranium to the U.S. and Russia for blend down. Moreover, 14 of these 32 countries have less than 100 kilograms and, with the right incentives, are good candidates to eliminate their stocks.

The excellent progress achieved so far has largely come from having nuclear power plants use fuel derived in part from nuclear-weapons materials. This suggests a continuing and effective building block to keep highly enriched uranium and plutonium out of dangerous hands.

Edgar Berkey has been a nuclear program consultant to the U.S. Department of Energy and related industry for more than 40 years. He is a vice president with Longenecker & Associates and currently manages a technical-support contract for DOE's $12.4 billion waste-treatment plant at Hanford.

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