WASHINGTON — Energy Department officials will shake hands and exchange congratulations with Russian representatives at a Port of Baltimore dockside ceremony on Tuesday as a freighter from St. Petersburg is to arrive with the final shipment of enriched uranium that was once intended for Soviet warheads. The uranium will be turned into fuel for American power reactors, completing a 20-year program, called Megatons to Megawatts, that has eliminated enough highly enriched uranium to fuel about 19,000 warheads.
But amid the good cheer and talk of mutual cooperation, the United States’ policy on uranium enrichment — the same technology that is at the heart of the dispute with Iran — is a point of contention here, too, for much the same reason: the ambiguous overlap between the technology’s military and civilian use.
In the Middle East, the issue is why Iran has been producing enriched uranium in excess of its civilian needs. When further enriched, it can be used as bomb fuel.
The United States does not need enrichment to make any new nuclear weapons, because it already has thousands of them. But the United States could lose the ability to maintain its nuclear arsenal, many experts say, because its nuclear infrastructure is withering. The last American factory for enriching uranium that used American technology closed in May. It was a victim, after 60 years, of changing technologies and economics — some of it resulting from the Megatons to Megawatts program, which provided the enrichment needs for half of the civilian nuclear industry.