Megatons to megawatts

[how to produce electricity by getting rid of 20k nuclear warheads]

This article was originally published in Italian on the 12th of March, 2014.


Last weeks world news – a source of concern for the condition of Ukraine’s population – have brought back to the top the spectre of the nuclear weaponry race.

In addition to real fatalities and strong divisions – the price for fierce clashes and the result of national policies we do not want to describe here, nor we are able to judge in every aspect – we see an increased fear that the deterioration of the situation could bring to contrasts we all expected would have been just a relic of the past, after the end of the Cold War.

In order to exorcise such frightening thought we want to remember how much we can get from the use of energy sources as vehicles of Peace. And among all nuclear energy.


In December 2013 the program popularly known as “Megatons to Megawatts” was completed. On the basis of this program the United States agreed with Russian Federation to purchase some Low-Enriched Uranium (i.e. with a 235U concentration below 20%) coming from the reprocessing of the Highly-Enriched Uranium (i.e. with a 235U concentration above 80%) contained in the former USSR nuclear warheads. The official name of the program was “Agreement between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the United States of America Concerning the Disposition of Highly-Enriched Uranium Extracted from Nuclear Weapons.”, dated February 18th, 1993.

It was estimated that in the last twenty years the United States have produced about 10% of its electricity by dismantling 20k nuclear warheads сделано в России (made in Russia); in other words, they have recycled 500 tonnes of Russian bomb-grade HEU into 14k tonnes of LEU. This is energetically equivalent to: 3.4 billions tonnes of coal, 12.2 billions of oil barrels, 2.6E15 (2.6 millions of billions of) cubic meters of natural gas [1].

Interesting to know how all was born thanks to the initiative of a Physicist at MIT, Thomas L. Neff [2], who in October 1991 took pen and paper and wrote to New York Times, voicing his apprehension. He had in mind a very simple idea on how to turn an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous legacy in a useful and highly symbolic initiative. Two months later Neff was invited in Moscow to discuss the details of his proposal with Russian scientists and Government’s officials. On August 28th, 1992 negotiation started; Clinton and Yeltsin signed the final agreement in 1993.

The details of the proposal were put on paper for the first time on October 24th, 1991 in a Op-Ed in the New York Times. The project was so successful that it was honored on the same newspaper on January 24th .


[2]Thomas L. Neff assisted US Governments over the years in fixing some problems related to the Highly-Enriched Uranium management and nuclear security. For such activity he was awarded in 1997 with Leo Szilard Award in Physics. []


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