Electricity consumers turn swords into ploughshares—without even knowing it

Media coverage of last week’s nuclear summit in Washington focused mostly on game-framed analysis of how the U.S. president’s nuclear policies might affect his standing in domestic and world opinion. That is unfortunate, especially in the case of the measures for dealing with the so-called “loose nukes.” There was almost no mention of the biggest swords-to-ploughshares drive in history. Called Megatons-to-Megawatts (its formal title is the U.S.-Russia Highly Enriched Uranium Agreement), this is a program, started in 1993, to destroy huge amounts of weapons-grade nuclear explosive that used to be on Russian warheads intended for North America.

And by destroy, I mean remove this material, permanently, from the face of the earth.

How is this material, a kilogram of which contains enough explosive force to wipe out a city, being destroyed?

By burning it in North American nuclear power reactors, to make electricity. Right now, uranium from Russian warheads is helping generate around ten percent of America’s electricity.

It is remarkable that the biggest and most successful swords-to-ploughshares program in history should go unmentioned in the coverage of a world summit on nuclear proliferation. For example, the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), which is the U.S. government’s agent in implementing Megatons to Megawatts, touted the program’s achievements in an April 13 press release. It received no play in the mainstream press.

But before blaming the media for not picking up this particular item, let’s consider the date of the release: April 13—the same day the summit wrapped up. By that time, most of the reporters covering the summit had already consulted their sources and written their stories. If USEC was looking for good press, it should have been more proactive.

Would that have made a difference? Areva, a competitor of USEC in the business of low-enriched uranium, has been seriously proactive in touting its involvement in another version of Megatons to Megawatts. Areva North America is, together with The Shaw Group, building a facility in South Carolina to convert plutonium from nuclear weapons into fuel for civilian power reactors. The company has relentlessly reported on this in its blog, and its representatives, including CEO Jacques Besnainou, never fail to mention it during regular teleconferences with nuclear bloggers.

Did this make it into any of the thousand-plus news stories on the Washington nuclear summit published between April 11 and April 18?

No, and neither did Megatons to Megawatts.

There are two reasons for this. First, most reporters covering the summit are either on general assignment or are attached to their vehicles’ Washington bureaus. They’ll cover a nuclear issue if it has something to do with top-level politics, but they can’t go into the technical weeds.

Second, most expert commentators on nuclear issues tend to focus on nuclear security. Their professional schtick is to talk about the risk that nuclear material could be diverted from civilian storage and used for evil purposes, however hypothetical and remote that risk really is.

For this reason, most nuclear expert commentators tend to frown on the civilian nuclear industry. If they were to point out the real risk of misuse of civilian nuclear material—which is so close to nil that it is, for any practical purpose, zero—no reporter would call them.

Well, Megatons to Megawatts is a triumph for the civilian nuclear industry. It shows that the commercial nuclear business actually has a profitable and environmentally benign answer to the issue of loose nukes. Therefore most professional nuclear commentators don’t mention it.

These commentators have positioned themselves as the go-to sources for when the general assignment reporters have to go into the technical weeds. And since nuclear is such a technically complex subject, it is difficult for reporters to tell if they’re getting the most pertinent side of the story, especially if it’s not in their interviewee’s interest to point that out. General assignment reporters, like all normal human beings, simply cannot master every nuance of every subject they report on.

There will be a review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May. Judging from preliminary communications from the groups that have made the NPT their special preserve, I foresee more commentary hyping the alleged risks of proliferation based on civilian programs. This will lead to more bickering and non-action.

Meanwhile, Iran continues its weapons programs, which, until Iran was “outed” by a domestic opposition group in 2002, was completely missed by the anti-proliferation crowd. They were too busy talking about spent civilian fuel.

The civilian industry is humanity’s best hope for the actual destruction of the actual bomb material that exists today. The organizations that are directly involved in the destruction of this material need to get their story out. And they have less than a month to do it.

Think of it: a major swords-to-ploughshares story, in the lead-up to a conference on nuclear proliferation. As Jack Nicholson, in Chinatown, said about the dumping of water during a drought—“that’s, uh, news.”

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