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The Fallacy of the Megatons to Megawatts Program
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Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Online

July 23, 2008

Few U.S.-Russian cooperation efforts are more popular and less controversial than the "Megatons to Megawatts" program, also known as the HEU-LEU deal, which converts Russia's highly enriched uranium (HEU) from nuclear weapons into low-enriched uranium (LEU) for U.S. nuclear power reactors. Under the agreement that the countries signed in 1993, Moscow made a commitment to eliminate 500 metric tons of HEU--probably more than one-third of the total HEU stock that the Soviet Union produced during the Cold War. About 340 metric tons of HEU has already been converted into LEU, and the Russian uranium currently provides one-half of U.S. nuclear power, or about 10 percent of the country's electricity supply.

If 30 metric tons of HEU is downblended each year, the program will reach its goal in 2013, the year the initial agreement is set to expire. This raises the question, "What next?" In the United States, the HEU-LEU deal is universally viewed as a great success. Therefore, it's not surprising that there's been no shortage of proposals to accelerate the rate of downblending or to extend the program beyond its original deadline.

But because the U.S.-Russian HEU-LEU deal is implemented in a way that substantially increases the risk of theft of weapon-grade material, extending it would be wrongheaded.

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