clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

10 years ago, we were turning nuclear bombs into nuclear energy. We can do it again.

How we turned 20,000 Soviet nukes into zero-carbon energy — and how we can do the same with some of our own.

An illustration shows many missiles flying against a background of a yellow and red explosion. Getty Images

Just a decade ago, one in 10 American lightbulbs was powered by dismantled Russian nuclear weapons.

That was made possible by the Megatons to Megawatts program, an agreement negotiated after the collapse of the Soviet Union to convert uranium from Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpile into fuel for US nuclear power plants. The unconventional policy was first proposed by MIT physicist Thomas Neff in a 1991 New York Times op-ed. By the time Megatons to Megawatts ran its full course from 1993 to 2013, it had eliminated about 20,000 nuclear warheads and stood out as a point of shared pride in the often jaded arms control and disarmament field. “Nearly every commercial nuclear reactor in the United States received nuclear fuel under the program,” then-US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz remarked when the final uranium shipment left St. Petersburg for Baltimore 10 years ago. It was, he said, “one of the most successful nuclear nonproliferation partnerships ever undertaken.”

Megatons to Megawatts was diplomatically deft, reducing the risk of nuclear catastrophe while providing zero-carbon energy. It took advantage of a unique political moment with the USSR’s dissolution in 1991, which opened a door through which arms control agreements moved with remarkable speed.

For me, a designer working on system transitions in complex problem spaces, the beauty was in the transmutation of bombs to lightbulbs, military to civilian, swords to plowshares. It was political alchemy. When it comes to intractable issues like nuclear risk and climate change, the status quo is relentlessly sustained by political, economic, cultural, social, and technological forces. It’s a challenge to make meaningful progress in any of these arenas, much less implement an intervention that multitasks so elegantly.

Yet despite widespread acclaim, the program was never extended, expanded, or replicated elsewhere. “The initial agreement was so quick and successful that I would have hoped we built more upon it,” Douglas Shaw, senior adviser at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and professor of international affairs at George Washington University, told me. Upon learning about the program, my immediate reaction matched his conclusion: there should be more where this came from.

Especially now. The Doomsday Clock, a symbolic measure of our proximity to global man-made catastrophe, currently reads 90 seconds to midnight — the closest it’s ever been since the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists started counting in 1947. International norms against nuclear weapons use are eroding, thanks in part to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The only remaining arms control treaty between the US and Russia is on shaky ground, and experts fear an unfettered arms race if it goes unrenewed. “Geopolitical crises with grave nuclear undertones are spreading fast, from the Middle East, to the Korean peninsula, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres from Hiroshima last summer.

Megatons to Megawatts can’t simply be copy-pasted into a geopolitical context so different from 1991. Dismantling another country’s nuclear weapons for our own energy needs is unlikely to happen without a destabilizing shift in international power on the order of the Soviet Union’s collapse. But we can apply the program’s lessons domestically, thereby reducing the risk of nuclear catastrophe and gaining low-carbon energy — right here in the United States.

From a 2023 perspective, the model has even more obvious benefits. The emissions-saving aspect of nuclear power wasn’t an explicit selling point back when Megatons to Megawatts was negotiated, but it’s important now in a world that’s scrambling to meet climate goals and contend with ongoing energy crises. The possibility of a ready-made uranium supply is also hugely appealing, given that mining fresh uranium ore comes with considerable environmental and human rights costs, particularly for Indigenous communities.

National security incentives for the US to maintain its nuclear stockpile consistently outweigh its incentives to disarm, but we could tip the scale toward disarmament by linking it to climate mitigation and energy security. Although Megatons to Megawatts is a relic of the past, it had lasting impacts on international energy supply: the program helped Russia build a monopoly on nuclear fuel exports, which ironically may become off-limits to the US due to the war in Ukraine.

As we face the challenge of rapidly building a cleaner and independent energy supply, we have to expand a conception of national security that still focuses narrowly on military supremacy. We can turn our own nuclear bombs into energy, and simultaneously address nuclear threat and climate change as twinned existential risks.

Megatons to Megawatts, explained

Formally known as the US-Russia Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement, the Megatons to Megawatts deal kickstarted the conversion of 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU), the kind used in bombs, into low-enriched uranium (LEU), the kind that fuels nuclear power plants. That uranium generated 10 percent of US electricity over the course of 20 years.

At the time the program was created, the civilian energy was seen as just a nice bonus. Its main purpose was to address America’s national security concerns by whittling down the enormous Russian arsenal and securing nuclear material that experts feared might end up in the hands of terrorists or other rogue actors after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. For Russia, the exchange offered billions of dollars in revenue for its collapsed economy, integration into international institutions, and development of its nuclear industry into the global player it is today. Symbolically, it demonstrated that the Cold War as we knew it was over, and that the two countries possessing over 90 percent of the global nuclear stockpile were acting on their legal commitment to disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

Staff crowd around enormous barrels of uranium with a poster for Megatons to Megawatts on them that reads “20,000 nuclear weapons eliminated / 1993 - 2013”
The final shipment of Russian uranium under Megatons to Megawatts leaves St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2013.
Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

Obviously, the US-Russia relationship isn’t what it was in the early 1990s. Though undoubtedly successful at preventing proliferation, cooperation with former Soviet states had not been born out of goodwill and charity but out of fear and urgency. By 2012, Russia decided not to renew the Cooperative Threat Reduction program — a plan designed to assist the dismantling and securing of nuclear materials in former Soviet states — their Ministry of Foreign Affairs calling it “not consistent with our ideas about what forms and on what basis further cooperation should be built.” In 2014, Russia faced international condemnation for its annexation of Crimea, resulting in sanctions and suspension from the G8. Given today’s ongoing war in Ukraine and Putin’s threats of nuclear retaliation against the West, it’s safe to say that Moscow won’t be signing onto another Megatons for Megawatts deal any time soon.

But implementing a similar policy in today’s America doesn’t need to be contingent on a geopolitical Goldilocks moment with Russia or any of the seven other nuclear states. In fact, the current moment provides its own rationale for focusing on the stockpile at home.

The war in Ukraine, now nearly a year old, triggered an energy crisis that has sent prices way up as Europe scrambles for alternatives to the Russian gas that constituted much of its imported supply. High prices are taking a toll on consumers around the world, but a potentially positive consequence is the incentive for countries to invest in renewable and low-carbon fuel alternatives.

In the US, the crisis has throttled our ability to build new nuclear power plants because of Russia’s stranglehold on the necessary fuel. Next-generation nuclear power plants, known as small modular reactors (SMRs), are considered an important transitional technology in the race to meet net-zero emissions goals due to their smaller physical footprints, flexible modular designs, and built-in safeguards. But they require high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel, which is available almost exclusively from Russia at a commercial scale.

Overcoming our dependence on Russian HALEU will require investing in alternative enrichment facilities, and in the meantime, establishing a domestic weapons-to-energy pipeline of the sort that Megatons to Megawatts modeled. The US government already did convert a scant seven of its more than 585 metric tons of bomb-grade HEU into nuclear fuel between September 2013 and March 2016, according to the most recently declassified documents. We have the capability and infrastructure to do more, but it would require that we consider uranium to be more valuable in our nuclear reactors than in our bloated nuclear arsenal.

Why it’s so hard to let go of our nukes

Though America has reduced its arsenal dramatically since the Cold War, it clings to a disproportionately costly military-industrial complex and holds the second-highest number of warheads in the world after Russia. Even taking the view that our nuclear arsenal is a “necessary evil” in a world where multiple countries still possess weapons of mass destruction, the US could realistically maintain its deterrence with a far smaller number of warheads.

Of the estimated 5,244 nuclear warheads in the US arsenal, 1,536 are retired and scheduled for dismantlement. But dismantled weapons don’t necessarily result in surplus HEU for dilution into LEU — called downblending — and civilian use. The disassembled components of retired nuclear bombs, as the New York Times recently reported, are often destined for “a maze of bunkers and warehouses ... a kind of used-parts superstore from which new weapons can — and do — emerge.” This kind of weapons-to-weapons Frankensteining is a common, expensive practice in stockpile modernization programs — and only consistent with the concept of “retirement” in the way that a disgraced CEO resigns publicly with sacrificial fanfare and quietly starts a doubly profitable venture firm.

The technical conversion of bomb-grade HEU to nuclear fuel is pretty easy, and the HEU is already there, burning a hole in our pocket. Up until 10 years ago, the US was doing this at scale with Russian uranium. But right now, national security forces consider it too high-stakes to reroute HEU for non-military purposes — particularly in light of the war in Ukraine and American fears about the possibility of Russia using a tactical nuclear weapon. It’s bad optics for the US to reduce its nuclear arsenal while Russia threatens to use theirs.

“Those speculative scenarios keep US nuclear requirements high,” Shaw says. “How many weapons, what kinds do we need? What hedge for the future do we need? And if we end up with surplus material, by all means, let’s recover the commercial value from it.”

As an actionable step toward disarmament, this is sensible and satisfying. We should do this right now. But if the ideal future is a world free from the constant threat of nuclear disaster, there’s a philosophical limit to the risk reduction approach because designating something as “surplus” assumes that the remainder is absolutely necessary. We should question whether it is necessary. The ideal size of our nuclear stockpile isn’t determined by some objective mathematical calculation, but rather by the human judgment of a select few. That includes factors like, Shaw told me, imagined worst-case estimates of our adversaries’ military forces.

Enforcing more risk reduction measures, like taking missiles off hair-trigger alert or establishing clear lines of communication in the event of an attack, is crucial for rendering the current nuclear weapons system less likely to cause disaster. But such measures also end up reinforcing the status quo precisely because they make the system marginally safer to keep around and therefore easier to justify. While they are a step toward disarmament, they may paradoxically keep the concept of elimination at arm’s length. It’s a bit like focusing on climate adaptation (like building flood-resilient infrastructure and engineering drought-resistant crops) while neglecting climate mitigation (like transitioning away from fossil fuels and preventing deforestation).

That’s why it’s crucial that we challenge the parameters by which we think about nuclear risk in the first place. Our government tends toward hoarding and upgrading its weapons because at the core of all its game-theory complexity and purposefully obscure statecraft, its model says: we will be less secure if we have fewer nuclear weapons. This conclusion runs counter to all our best human instincts, common sense, and popular opinion — and it’s why groups like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons are advocating for abolition rather than accepting that we’re stuck with nukes that could incinerate humanity as we know it. “I see real value in policies that are risk reduction aims,” Emma Claire Foley, a researcher for the nuclear abolition movement Global Zero, told me. “But if you’re talking to almost anybody about this, you get a real intuitive, ‘Obviously, they should not exist.’”

The case for confronting nuclear risk and climate risk simultaneously

Public concern about climate change and energy policy is increasing in the meantime, but that largely hasn’t been reflected in national security policy. “The idea that climate is a national security issue has begun to expand a little bit, but the policy mechanisms and the bureaucracy to support that are still way behind,” Laicie Heeley, founder of the foreign policy magazine Inkstick, told me.

The government shores up what it defines as a national priority, whether that be nukes or corn or airlines. If climate change took up more space in that club, we’d see the wisdom in freeing up even a fraction of the cost for nuclear forces, which is currently projected to total $634 billion over the period from 2021 to 2030. The recently passed National Defense Authorization Act increased the Pentagon’s 2023 budget to $858 billion and boosted spending on nuclear weapons.

Megatons to Megawatts offers a rare glimpse at the immediate material trade-off that happens upon giving up weapons to gain energy. Both literally and conceptually, it committed to building a new world out of the old. It’s proof of concept for the daunting systemic transition we must now make: moving away from a security solely dictated by military preparedness against perceived foreign threat, and toward a security driven by action against ongoing planetary change.

For my work in systems design, I’m trained to conjure creative approaches to sprawling, complex problems. My colleagues cross-pollinate among disciplines from linguistics to geophysics to community organizing. Both in and outside the arms control field, there are universities and municipalities and Twitter users churning out imaginative interventions for a vast range of issues. But you need the right political moment for an idea to mature into implementation. “I had the right idea at the right time,” as Neff told me in an email exchange about the Megatons to Megawatts program.

Even so, I’d challenge the notion that we need some perfect opportunity to act. That complacent disposition suits the status quo and fails to account for what we already control — factors like moral clarity or stubborn determination. For Neff, good timing still required him to remain the go-between, orchestrating the unlikely common denominators that made the Megatons to Megawatts deal appealing to all its signatories. “I compare it to having a child,” he said. “Easy to produce but hard to raise ... It took roughly 18 years of my life.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t use militaristic metaphors to promote disarmament, but this one is too pertinent: the effort to reduce risk of nuclear disaster and the effort to mitigate climate change are two battles in the same existential war. As author Jonathan Schell put it in his book The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger, “Both are the fruit of swollen human power ... Both threaten life on a planetary scale. Both require a fully global response. Anyone concerned by the one should be concerned with the other. It would be a shame to save the Earth from slowly warming only to burn it up in an instant in a nuclear war.”

Among disarmament advocates, there can be a sense that climate and nuclear nonproliferation agendas are vying for congressional goodwill and philanthropic dollars. There’s also a legitimate concern about “fear fatigue” — that the public doesn’t have bandwidth to be anxious about so many existential threats at once. With a weapons-to-energy policy, we wouldn’t need to play these zero-sum games. By making disarmament part and parcel of climate mitigation, we can build the political will to do both.

Irina Wang is a designer and writer at the intersection of existential risk and structural injustice. She practices the creative work of cross-sector translation, the strategic work of systems transition, and the ethical work of forging allyship.