Thomas L. Neff’s Idea Turned Russian Warheads Into American Electricity
As the Cold War ended in the late 1980s and early ’90s, a new fear arose amid the rejoicing and relief: that atomic security might fail in the disintegrating Soviet Union, allowing its huge stockpile of nuclear warheads to fall into unfriendly hands.
The jitters intensified in late 1991, as Moscow announced plans to store thousands of weapons from missiles and bombers in what experts viewed as decrepit bunkers, policed by impoverished guards of dubious reliability.
Many officials and scientists worried. Few knew what to do. That is when Thomas L. Neff, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hit on his improbable idea: Why not let Moscow sell the uranium from its retired weapons and dilute it into fuel for electric utilities in the United States, giving Russians desperately needed cash and Americans a cheap source of power?
Last month, Dr. Neff’s idea came to a happy conclusion as the last shipment of uranium from Russia arrived in the United States. In all, over two decades, the program known as Megatons to Megawatts turned 20,000 Russian warheads into electricity that has illuminated one in 10 American light bulbs.
Dr. Neff fathered the atomic recycling program in spite (or perhaps because) of his lack of name recognition, his inexperience on the world stage and his modest credentials in arms control. Moreover, he not only came up with the original plan but shepherded it for decades.
“I was naïve,” Dr. Neff, 70, recalled in a recent interview. “I thought the idea would take care of itself.”
In fact, it required sheer doggedness and considerable skill in applying nuclear science to a global deal freighted with technical complexities and political uncertainties. Yet in the end, Dr. Neff noted, the mission was accomplished: Uranium once meant to obliterate American cities ended up endowing them with energy.
Nuclear experts hail it as a remarkable if poorly known chapter of atomic history. The two decades of bomb recycling, they say, not only reduced the threat of atomic terrorism and helped stabilize the former Soviet Union but achieved a major feat of nuclear disarmament — a popular goal that is seldom achieved.
“It’s an amazing thing,” said Frank N. von Hippel, a physicist who advised the Clinton White House and now teaches at Princeton. The wave of arms destruction, he said, eliminated up to a third of the planet’s atomic bomb fuel, making it “the biggest single step” in the history of nuclear arms reduction.
He called Dr. Neff an underappreciated hero, adding that in a time of governmental muddle and paralysis, his success was a striking example “of what one person can do.”
Thomas Lee Neff was born in 1943 in Oregon, the older of two boys; his family raised chickens and grew most of its own food. He studied math and physics at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, graduating with highest honors, and received his Ph.D. in physics from Stanford. As a senior M.I.T. researcher, he specialized in energy studies, writing books on nuclear power, solar energy and, in 1984, the global uranium market. His timing was propitious.
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