Megatons to Megawatts Program: Easing Nuclear Tension

Casey Tucker
March 4, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Aereal view of an American nuclear power plant. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The megatons to megawatts program is the most significant non-prolific initiative to convert nuclear weapons into energy. The program allows us to convert Russian warheads into a form of nuclear energy that was used in nuclear power plants. This particular program has resulted in dismantling of over 20,000 warheads in Russia and the production of 10% of the electricity US nuclear power plants like the one seen in Fig 1. [1] The fuel itself was a helpful addition to keep prices low in the U.S. and make sure that our energy continue to have a low-cost liable provider for the 20 years the agreement took place.

Impact on US-Russian Relations

Since the beginning of the Cold War in 1947, there has not been much cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in the sphere of nuclear weapons. In the early 1990s Russias nuclear program was in need of funding. Not only did they have insufficient funds for research, but they were uninvolved in the global nuclear market. [2] This particular agreement between the two world powers was developed by a physicist named Thomas Neff who was a professor at MIT at the time. [1] He recognized the potentiality of a win-win scenario on both sides. The Megatons to Megawatts program has shown to be a symbiotic relationship between the two powers. The U.S. has benefited by receiving fuel for 10% of its energy in the last 20 years at a lower cost, and Russia has integrated their Nuclear program internationally while receiving funding from the agreement. [2] This agreement really gave us an example of how productively agreeable the countries can be toward one another after 44 years of nuclear tension. [1]

Why Using Nuclear Energy from Warheads is Efficient

Fig. 2: A closer look at highly Enriched Uranium (HEU). [4] (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Environmental Protection Agency states that nuclear power accounts for about 20% of electricity production in the US primarily because it is the most efficient means of extracting energy. Extracting nuclear energy from the fuel source is said to be 8,000 times more efficient than coal or oil. [3] On top of those impressive stats, there are several additional advantages to purchasing the warheads as opposed to normal processes in obtaining Uranium. We produce nuclear energy through the process of nuclear fission, which is a process that requires highly enriched Uranium (HEU) which can be seen in fig 2. Uranium is the most important ingredient in producing nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. [3] Normally, we purchase Uranium that has been mined from the Earths crust; after Uranium is mined from the crust, it is not yet what we would consider highly enriched. Typically we would need to be place Uranium in a centrifuge machine to separate U-235 away from U-238. Centrifuging the Uranium isnt necessary when it is taken from the Russian nuclear warheads and down-blended as detailed in the HEU deal. [4] Commercial nuclear energy production sites usually use a centrifuge to convert Uranium to a concentration of 5%, but Russian nuclear weapons already contained highly enriched Uranium with a concentration of 90%. The HEU deal required that the fuel be down-blended into a usable concentration of Uranium for U.S. nuclear power plants. Thanks to the HEU deal, Russia was able to transfer 500 tons of down-blended Uranium to American power plants. [2]


The words "nuclear power" usually carry a stigma that represents danger and highly possible destruction. But the Megatons to Megawatts program is an example of two countries handling the responsibilities of nuclear power safely, productively, practically. One of the significant properties of this agreement is that it was mutually beneficial for each side, and there was no real downside. This agreement has resulted in transforming nuclear weapons that have the power to destroy cities, into nuclear energy that supplies cities with energy to help them run.

© Casey Tucker. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. L. Garwin and G. Charpak, Megawatts and Megatons: A Turning Point in the Nuclear Age (Knopf, 2001).

[2] C. B. Yulish, T. L. Neff, and D. Kennedy, "Assessing the Megatons to Megawatts Program," Science 295, 2368 (2002).

[3] A. McKillop, "The Uranium Outlook," Energy Environ. 22, 441 (2011).

[4] C. DiOrio, "The Megatons to Megawatts Program," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.