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Swords into Ploughshares

December 10, 2013

“For two decades, one in ten light bulbs in America has been powered by nuclear material from Russian nuclear warheads. The 1993 United States-Russian Federation Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement has proven to be one of the most successful nuclear nonproliferation partnerships ever undertaken. The completion of this ‘swords to ploughshares’ program represents a major victory both for the United States and Russia.” – U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, November 14, 2013

Yesterday, American officials and their Russian counterparts marked the end of the Megatons to Megawatts program with the last shipment of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) from Russia to the United States. This nuclear fuel was part of a bilateral program, stemming from an agreement reached in 1992, that converted 20,000 Russian warheads into commercial reactor-grade fuel. This was done at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer – and it produced enough energy to power homes and businesses across the entire United States for two years.

In the many speeches I have given on nuclear issues, I have always pointed to this program as an example of how nuclear energy has aided our non-proliferation agenda—raising the ironic notion that nuclear power may be one of the most effective ways of reducing or eliminating excess weapons-grade nuclear material. Judging from audience reaction over the years, apparently this program was—unfortunately—one of the best-kept secrets in the energy field. The Megatons to Megawatts program was an inspired “win-win” for both Russia and the United States and eliminated tens of thousands of warheads from Russia’s nuclear stockpile through a mutually beneficial commercial transaction.

The program’s end was marked during the 60th anniversary of Atoms for Peace, President Eisenhower’s seminal address to the United Nations on December 8, 1953. Megatons to Megawatts epitomized Eisenhower’s vision to develop the peaceful uses of the atom. The thirty-fourth President’s commitment to this goal transformed a science that had been, until that time, focused primarily on military applications and the production of nuclear weapons. By challenging the international community to work towards developing the peaceful uses of the atom, this U.S. initiative opened the way for nuclear energy production, nuclear medicine, and other applications in food and water safety. This assured U.S. leadership in finding “the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”

Much of world is better today because the atom has been applied to life-sustaining purposes, and its role can only become more important in the future. Nuclear energy is the only baseload form of electricity that does not put carbon into the atmosphere – a crucial consideration as the planet grapples with climate change and its consequences. And, millions of lives are saved worldwide every year through the use of nuclear medicine for the diagnosis and treatment of serious medical conditions. Annually, twenty million people in the United States alone benefit from such treatment.

One can only reflect on the transformational leadership that was required to “reframe” the atomic issue in 1953. Just months before Eisenhower’s speech, Joseph Stalin had died and the Soviet Union had broken the U.S. monopoly on the testing of the hydrogen bomb. The hydrogen bomb was and is a terrifying weapon, several hundred times more powerful than the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world quivered at its awesome, destructive power.

In contrast, we seem complacent today. Despite the pending economic and physical dislocation, we have no long-term plan for addressing the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. And Washington pundits say it is “too hard” to get carbon legislation back on the table.

At the same time, nuclear power – the most powerful carbon-free technology – is being threatened by short-term market forces. Recently, decisions were made to shutter perfectly safe and reliable nuclear power plants—which are fully amortized—for economic reasons. These relate to the shale gas “revolution” that promises cheap, abundant supplies and short lead time construction. As abundant as gas may be, ultimately it must be a transition fuel as gas still emits 50% of the carbon that is typical of coal. If nuclear energy continues to be marginalized will we still have the technical capability in the United States –and the work force – to ramp it up again when we finally have the courage to deal with the looming climate catastrophe? Market forces are short-term mechanisms—yet we are relying on them in this case for addressing a crucial long-term problem.

For America to remain a strong leader and to address its longer-term carbon-constrained future we must have an energy strategy. This entails aligning both the methods and the means to assure a diversified energy portfolio. This is recognized in many important policy circles but deemed, apparently, controversial from a political standpoint.

There are additional consequences for the United States if we retreat from what was traditionally our global leadership in nuclear energy. Leadership requires the capacity to use leverage and influence to achieve objectives. The United States needs a robust nuclear program if it is to continue to be a force for curbing nuclear proliferation and competing in the lucrative global nuclear industry. Unless we act soon, an industry founded in this country will continue to yield its position to friends, competitors and potential adversaries alike.

Aside from the carbon-free generation of electricity, nuclear energy has also provided ways —ironically — for many countries of the world to cooperate. For those nations in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, peaceful nuclear cooperation has, at times, been extraordinary—making the world a safer place.

The times demand a renewed vision – one that will keep the United States in the civil nuclear game. Its sixty year history has been one of remarkable success from every conceivable metric, including its capacity to create stable, well-paying domestic jobs. When it comes to peace and prosperity the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. Megatons to Megawatts showed us that this is possible.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. PAUL J. HANSEN permalink
    December 10, 2013 3:36 pm

    THANKS AGAIN SUSAN FOR BRINGING TO LIGHT STILL ANOTHER ISSUE THAT THOSE OF US WHO THINK OURSELVES WELL INFORMED HAD NO IDEA OF!!

    THE ISSUE NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED AND CERTAINLY THIS CONGRESS IS NOT ABOUT TO DO SO-OR LET OUR PRESIDENT DO SO.

    WHAT TO DO? SUSAN-YOU KEEP TAKING A LEAD AND HERE AGAIN YOU MUST DO SO-CAN YOU GET SOMEONE TO START TAKING ACTION AGAIN BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE?

    KEEP THINKING AND KEEP PUSHING US!

    PAUL HANSEN-PARK RIDGE, ILLINOIS

  2. Tony DuPuis permalink
    December 10, 2013 3:38 pm

    Great post Susan !!! The long term use of the program Ike implemented, has been very good for us in so many ways. The massive implications of what fracking is doing in communities all over this Country is an absolute disgrace -(all in the name of the same “corporate owned” dollars that have profited from massive wars and have almost caused our Country to go broke.) It certainly seems, there is never enough for them. They now turn to endangering the environment, public health and destroying the lives and communities of so many.
    At least with nuclear power, it definitely is the lesser of two evils and has served great multidimensional purposes.
    Thanks for sharing Susan. :-)

  3. December 10, 2013 8:22 pm

    There was a time when American academia welcomed challenge to its theories, that those theories might be held to to a hotter crucible of credibility, but that time has passed with the onset of an acute leftist intellectual incest that has stunted American academia and its every research, product and student since the late sixties.

    Now challenge is acidly resented, and challengers are vituperatively slurred as ‘flat-earthers’ and ‘holocaust denier mentalities’. A sort of Medieval, religious overtone has set in and damn all apolitical, objective heretics who dare question the holy gospel according to political correctness.

    Nowhere is this more evident or dangerous than as to the issue of allegedly man-caused, man-curable ‘climate change’ (once called ‘global warming’ before it became undeniable that the planet has not warmed in at least the last 18 years).

    Vast propaganda constructs have been manufactured to entrench the pop-trendy man-as-the-anathema-of-our-planet scripture ‘proved’ by theoretical ‘climate change!’. A non-existent ‘overwhelming consensus of scientists all over the world!’ has been invented. Scare rhetoric about drowning continents and scalding, starving humanity has been mass-produced and blared ceaselessly by the leftist media conglomerate, despite the Warmist theory being full of more corroded, Saturn sized holes than Obamacare.

    I’m with Susan on nuclear energy, and I don’t know for a certainty whether man-altered climate change is legitimate or not, but all that separates me from the slam-dunk global warming religionists in that respect is I’m willing to admit I don’t yet know.

    To be sure, there is no harm in observing realistic, effective, demonstrably justifiable clean air/water measures just in case, but cracks spread quickly across that crystal when Warmism starts to be blatantly mega-rigged as a Trojan horse for political omni-control schemes such as Solyndra style tax money corruption, land-grabs, profiteering, science bigotry, extra-constitutional adventurism, economic cancer, and grant-money wedging, which, so far, constitute the sum of the ‘climate change’ cult that has been objectively proved.

  4. cac permalink
    December 10, 2013 10:24 pm

    Susan, thank you for your continuing, important and far sighted leadership on the critical nuclear energy issue.

  5. Charles Yulish permalink
    December 10, 2013 11:54 pm

    Thank you Susan, for this superb article . Yes, the 20 year success of the Megatons to Megawatts program IS one of the greatest stories never told.” Indeed, few people have ever heard that Russian nuclear warheads once aimed at American cities have become fuel producing ten percent of America’s electricity. The print and electronic media have largely ignored the story for two decades. One can only hope that this article by Susan should become an OpEd in America’s newspapers; and an attractive subject for the electronic media– Opra would probably love to interview Susan about this subject. As Susan makes clear, this nuclear power success story has made the world safer . It is a major step toward achieving President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace vision. It is a Itimely restating of Isiahia’s biblical prophesy. We have at last demonstrated that we can “beat our bombs into fuel rods.” Where can’t we go from here?

    Thank you again, Susan.

    Charles Yulish

  6. DON WEBSTER permalink
    December 11, 2013 2:14 pm

    This is a great piece on a program that I, for all my reading, never heard of. Susan, keep plugging the broader possibilities as shown by this program. And how right you are that the market is a short term mechanism ill suited to solve long term problems. I fear there is not much understanding of this pithy truth.

  7. Dan Graser permalink
    December 11, 2013 10:51 pm

    I believe that shuttering fully amortized plants (and the reluctance of the US financial markets to underwrite the development of new reactor construction) is tied directly to problems with the back end of the fuel cycle: stranded spent fuel at plants not designed or costed for indefinite on-site storage; failure of the federal government to honor its waste acceptance contracts; Senate stonewalling on funding for resumption of the Yucca Mountain geologic repository; flim-flam waste confidence decisions; the failure to invest in reprocessing technologies and research; and the prospect that this government will continue to shirk its responsibility to the consumers of nuclear power-generated electricity. Narrow-minded and parochial interests – political interests – have effectively destroyed the national nuclear energy policy and are slowly strangling that industry.

    Those who endorse such deconstruction of such capital assets and national resources should consider what the opportunity cost is for replacing 20-30% of the current national electricity output. Those who believe that baseload can be replaced by wind, solar, and thermal should consider the investment cost that will be needed to generate that much baseload power. Once they wrap their heads around those numbers, they should then consider the lead times necessary to build the infrastructure, the policy and legislative frameworks, and the societal and environmental paradigm shifts needed to enable the success of that effort. Five years? Ten? Twenty? Forty? More?

    Renewed vision is one way of characterizing what is needed. I’d opine that it must be accompanied by reinvigorated pragmatism in political and economic leaders who are willing to renew their commitment to nuclear energy as a key component of our near, intermediate, and long term future.

  8. December 12, 2013 12:09 pm

    Susan, great article. This 20 year project shows that the United States and Russia can work together for the common good. This is my 50th year in nuclear power after starting in the US Naval Nuclear Powet Program. I had the honor of representing the US at the IAEA your grandfather helpedvset up. His words about “. Atoms for Peace” were profusely displayed there. Richard McPherson

  9. December 12, 2013 2:44 pm

    Excellent article and comments by all.

    However, I’m am not convinced that the “climate change” issue is as big as they say. After all, what we know about the earth’s weather and climate is milli-seconds in the life cycle of the earth. Additionally, there is information coming out the indicates the assumptions made in the climate change model were incorrect and things will not be as dier as stated 20 years ago.

    As for nuclear, I have been splitting atoms since 1972 and currently working on the new plants being built in South Carolina. They are magnificent machines of simplicity and 1000 fold increase in safety margins then existing plants. If for nothing else, the US should be building new plants just to replace the ones that will disappear in 20 years. Can’t keep extending their life indefinately.

    Except for Crysyal River in Florida, Kewaunee and VT Yankee were shutdown for economic reasons, couldn’t compete in the local market. SONGS is another story altogether. It was shutdown, I feel, because they didn’t want to fight the licensing battle to restart it. They could have gotten a license amendment to operate at 70% power, to reduce flow and therefore reduce vibration in the steam generators, but litigation costs money, lots of it. Just wasn’t worth the cost. Now CA has to deal with replacing it, and green will not do that. It also became a political football for Boxer and Feinstein.

    Thanks for the article. Well written

  10. RickJones permalink
    December 15, 2013 8:32 pm

    Susan, magnificent piece, as always! Perfect @ utility of nuclear energy & positive affects on climate change.J.Robt Oppenheimer realized p-8-9-45 that the more scientists harnessing atomic physics would ironically keep us safer, ie “Cuban missile crisis”. Refuting the “Oil patch” lobby mantra that climate change is NONSENSE, satelite photos polar ice cap would suggest otherwise(lost 30% since 1985). A “once in a century” weather event now occurs @ q. 3 mos! The “Day after Tomorrow” movie almost became reality w/ East Coast SuperStorm Sandy last year!! Let’s only hope that (IF IRAN behaves/complies w/USA sanctions) that nuclear energy be welcomed world-wide as reasonable alternative to the Greenhouse gasses of petrochemistry.

  11. December 26, 2013 12:01 am

    Dear Ms. Eisenhower:

    I’m sorry to hear of your father’s passing. A number of years ago, I sent him a copy of my first history book. His letter was so encouraging that I continued writing and I’m now looking forward to the publication of my fifth book. I shall never forget your father. May he R.I.P.

    Rob Hubbard
    New Haven, CT

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