ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – Take a canister, fill it with down-blended uranium worth $2.5 million, secure it and 39 others to the deck of a container ship, send it off toward Baltimore, and you have nearly completed a deal that provided commercial uses in America for the remains of 20,000 dismantled Russian nuclear bombs.
Thursday evening, under thick, wintry clouds, the M.V. Atlantic Navigator prepared to leave the dockyards in St. Petersburg, closing out a 20-year joint U.S. and Russian program that safely defused 500 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium.
It provided jobs to nuclear technicians at a time when Russia was in chaos; it sparked the development of a dilution process that enables bombs to become fuel for power plants; and it may have helped to keep poorly secured nuclear materials out of the wrong hands — at least that’s what Americans say. Russians strongly deny that.
Both sides agree that it was a hardy example of the ways in which Americans and Russians can cooperate, if they have a mind to do so. Despite the tensions between Moscow and Washington, Russian uranium today provides 50 percent of the output of American nuclear power plants, or 10 percent of all U.S. electricity.
Gennady Solovyov traveled from the Ural Mountain industrial city of Novouralsk to watch the last canisters get loaded. From the bridge of the Atlantic Navigator, he looked out as a huge blue crane picked up the canisters, four at a time, and lowered them gently to the deck.
“Russia was in dire straits,” he said, and it was his job, at the Urals Electrochemical Combine, to figure out nearly two decades ago how to blend highly enriched uranium (HEU) down to a level of enrichment that would work in a power plant. Some Americans had suggested that Russia didn’t have the capability, but he proved them wrong.
The work kept hundreds of highly trained people employed at his plant over the years.
The commercial value of the agreement was $17 billion. The money came from American utilities, and it provided a significant income flow to a struggling Russia. The agreement was due to expire this year, and Russia is now signing straight commercial deals directly with buyers abroad. Both countries continue to down-blend their excess uranium.
“The program has been tremendously successful,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said in a telephone interview from Washington. “It met its goals in terms of scale and in terms of schedule.”
Its conclusion, long in sight, should not dislocate the commercial uranium market, he said, or have any sharp effect on electricity prices.
“It is the most successful nonproliferation program to date,” said Philip Sewell, who is a senior vice president at USEC, the Bethesda-based receiver of Russian uranium under the deal. Now a private company, it was formerly owned by the U.S. government.
“We never considered there to be a nonproliferation threat. The material was secured,” countered Vladimir Kuchinov of Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency. But the program, he said, was the most sensible way to dispose of weapons material.
The program had to take into account the concerns of disarmament people, nonproliferation people and electric utility people, said Rose Gottemoeller, who was in on its beginnings and is now acting undersecretary for arms control and international security at the U.S. State Department.
“It didn’t sound very practical to me,” she said. “We had to figure out ways to fit this program into normal market competitiveness.”
But months of talks, she said, produced “a model for how to make a lot of disparate forces work together.”
It nearly foundered in the late 1990s, when the Russian economy collapsed again, NATO went to war in Yugoslavia and USEC was privatized. But the two countries worked out ways to keep it going, and there was plenty of pride over that among those who gathered for Thursday’s going-away.
“This is one that worked well for both countries — not easy to achieve,” said Rick Shannon, president of Atlantic Ro-Ro Carriers, which operates the Atlantic Navigator.
The ship is under the command of Roman Elokhin, a Russian sea dog with a full head of white hair, and in addition to the 60 tons of uranium canisters, it’s carrying the usual load of aluminum, steel and containers. In early December, it will call at Ruckert Terminals in Baltimore, across the water from Fort McHenry.
The uranium, last loaded, will be first to go ashore. Then it will be taken to one of three plants to be fabricated into usable fuel.
The North Atlantic in winter, it gets a little bit hairy out there,” Shannon said. “But the old captains in the Russian fleet are some of the best in the world.”