Thursday, May 05, 2005

A Non-Proliferation Success Story

Last night's edition of the NewsHour on PBS featured a piece on the joint efforts between the U.S. and Russia to dismantle Russian nuclear weapons in order to keep them from falling into the wrong hands.

Here's an excerpt from the report:

PAVEL FELGENHAUER: Decommissioning means that they're dismantled. But the material that they were composed of didn't disappear much. That means it's stored somewhere, most likely stored in much less secure conditions than it was when it was a nuclear warhead.

So dismantling nuclear weapons is good, but that means that the material is less secure as a result. It's not an easy situation, and it's made worse by a mutual lack of trust, by ambiguity over the direction in which U.S.-Russian relations develop.

Reading that, it's easy to get the impression that those warheads are just lying around, and that the U.S. isn't doing much at all to get rid of them.

But that's not the case.

For the last 11 years, the U.S. has been purchasing dismantled Russian warheads and downblending the highly enriched uranium (HEU) for use in American nuclear reactors. The program is called Megatons to Megawatts, and it's administered by USEC, a company based in Bethesda, Maryland.

As of last October, the program had dismantled an incredible 9,000 warheads, and is on track to hit the 10,000 mark this September.

Here are some more details from USEC:
The program will recycle 500 metric tons of bomb-grade uranium into fuel by its conclusion in 2013. Approximately ten percent of America’s electricity is produced using Megatons to Megawatts fuel.

Once blended down to low-enriched uranium fuel, the material is no longer usable in a nuclear weapon. USEC purchases approximately $450 million of the fuel annually. Russia uses that money to support nuclear safety, environmental and security programs. To date, USEC has paid the Russian treasury over $3.5 billion for purchases of the fuel. By the program’s end, total purchases from Russia will be approximately $8 billion.

So, Russian nuclear weapons get dismantled, the HEU is downblended into reactor fuel which we then use to generate electricity here in the U.S. What's not to like?

It's clearly one of the greatest success stories in the history of nuclear non-proliferation. But in last night's report, there wasn't even a hint that it existed.

After I found the transcript of last night's show, I sent a note to Charles Yulish, Vice President of Corporate Communications with USEC, asking him about the omission.
I watched the show and wondered about it myself. We have been after PBS and the News Hour for years, trying to get an appointment with Ray Suarez, all without success

In a subsequent note, Charles had this to say:
At the 2003 Global Economic Forum, our CEO spoke with Suarez about M2M and Ray said he wanted to know more about the program. I tried to follow through by contacting him on at least four separate occasions by mail and phone, and I never got even the courtesy of a reply. When I finally reached his assistant he declined to let me speak with Suarez even by phone. I guess he thought that the elimination of nuclear warheads was not newsworthy.

That's a shame. This story has been underreported, and deserves more attention.

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