Downblend Diplomacy, Part 2

Posted: July 22, 2013 - 3:23pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 10, Issue 1 | 2013

Y-12 trains all the nation's monitors who travel to Russia to oversee the conversion of highly enriched uranium from nuclear weapons to low-enriched uranium.

“Initially, it was difficult,” the monitor recalled. “but for the last several years, it’s been pretty standard; they generally help us do what we need to do.”

This mistrust of the monitors and the purpose of their visits eventually gave way to cordial relations and mutual respect. That transformation — from skeptical, begrudging compliance to positive cooperation — has become a hallmark of the Transparency Program, manifesting itself in nearly every aspect of the visits.

“Over time, we built strong relationships, and our experiences are positive,” the monitor said. “We’re treated exceedingly well.”

The relationships extend beyond the nuclear facilities. On an average of once a year since 1999, the Y‑12 monitor has visited the orphanage at Ozersk, bringing supplies to help the kids get ready for school, Valentine’s cards, Christmas gifts or candy.

On one visit, she ran into a young man now in his 20s who had been in the orphanage during the early years of the Transparency Program.

“I asked him if our visits had made any difference, and he told me yes,” she said. “So maybe for those specific kids, our visits had a nice impact.”

Leaving a Legacy

The monitor marvels at the differences between her first and latest visits. There are more items on grocery store shelves (as the Russian economy has improved); security inside the nuclear facilities has improved (thanks in large part to U.S. assistance); and Russia is now a technologically advanced society (on her first visit, the monitor saw abacuses in use; now most Russians own cell phones).

“The monitors in this program have gotten to personally see a period of massive changes in Russian culture and technology,” she said. “I hope the legacy we left in Russia was positive because people interacted with us and found out we weren’t so bad.”

It’s the legacy — in the form of Cold War–era nuclear weapons — they’re not leaving in Russia, though, that might have the greatest global impact. When the program completes this year, 20,000 nuclear weapons’ worth of material will have been permanently eliminated from the world.

“These visits have a very serious purpose,” one monitor said. “It’s really a privilege that I have the opportunity to do this, to support my country and the responsible use of this material.”

Fast Facts

  • Nearly 10 percent of U.S. electricity consumed annually is generated by dismantled Soviet nuclear weapons.
  • From 1995 to March 2013, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Highly Enriched Uranium Transparency Program had conducted 373 monitoring visits to Russian nuclear facilities.
  • As of Jan. 1, 2013, the program had monitored the conversion of more than 472 metric tons of Russian weapons-origin highly enriched uranium into low-enriched uranium for peaceful uses in the U.S., equivalent to about 18,900 warheads.
  • About three nuclear weapons are eliminated every day under the U.S.–Russia Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement.