Thomas L. Neff’s Idea Turned Russian Warheads Into American Electricity
As the Cold War ended in the late 1980s and early ’90s, a new fear arose amid the rejoicing and relief: that atomic security might fail in the disintegrating Soviet Union, allowing its huge stockpile of nuclear warheads to fall into unfriendly hands.
The jitters intensified in late 1991, as Moscow announced plans to store thousands of weapons from missiles and bombers in what experts viewed as decrepit bunkers, policed by impoverished guards of dubious reliability.
Many officials and scientists worried. Few knew what to do.
That is when Thomas L. Neff, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hit on his improbable idea: Why not let Moscow sell the uranium from its retired weapons and dilute it into fuel for electric utilities in the United States, giving Russians desperately needed cash and Americans a cheap source of power?
Last month, Dr. Neff’s idea came to a happy conclusion as the last shipment of uranium from Russia arrived in the United States. In all, over two decades, the program known as Megatons to Megawatts turned 20,000 Russian warheads into electricity that has illuminated one in 10 American light bulbs.
His solution was atomic recycling. The question was how to float the idea.
On Oct. 19, 1991, nuclear experts filed into the Diplomat Room of the State Plaza Hotel in Washington. The agenda of the nongovernmental meeting was demilitarization. A Soviet delegation attended, as did Dr. Neff.
Outside the conference room during a break, he approached a leader of the Soviet bomb complex, Viktor N. Mikhailov, a canny apparatchik known for his love of Western cigarettes.
Dr. Neff asked whether he would consider selling the uranium in Soviet weapons.
“Interesting,” he said Dr. Mikhailov replied, puffing away. “How much?”
Five hundred metric tons, Dr. Neff said, giving what he considered a high estimate for the quantity of Soviet bomb fuel soon to become surplus. “If I had known how much they really had,” he recalled, “I would have said 700 tons.”
Uranium from the dismantled weapons, it said, was diluted into 15,432 tons of low enriched uranium. The resulting reactor fuel supplied half of all American nuclear power plants.
The total electric power, it said, could illuminate the whole of the United States (roughly 20,000 cities and 115 million households) for about two years — or Washington, D.C., for 185 years.
The atomic sale, the brochure said, “is widely held to symbolize the end of the era of confrontation between the two major nuclear powers.”
Read more at From Warheads to Cheap Energy