This year marks several nuclear-related anniversaries that are both important to the industry and personally to me. First, this is the 70th anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech. It seems like the significance of this speech is only growing with time, and my interest has been in advocating its commemoration, as discussed below.
While recent attention has been given to the anniversary of the Atoms for Peace speech, and rightfully so, scant attention has been given to the 30th anniversary of the HEU deal, even though it epitomized the aspirations of Eisenhower’s speech. My interest/involvement in the HEU deal has been more direct, also discussed below.
Atompeace.org is a website that I launched five years ago as part of UxC’s outreach to educate the public about nuclear energy and related matters and to provide support to certain initiatives in keeping with the aspirations of the Atoms for Peace speech. Thus, there is a linkage between all three of these anniversaries.
Atoms for Peace
Although I had heard about Eisenhower’s speech, I never really focused on it until the HEU deal was underway. It then resonated with me, especially the clause: It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace. This was what literally was accomplished with the HEU deal, when nuclear warhead material was converted into fuel for nuclear reactors.
For the 49th anniversary of the speech, I wrote an editorial in the Ux Weekly suggesting that the speech’s anniversary should be commemorated (UxC: Ux Weekly 16-48, December 2, 2002). I also discussed celebrating the anniversary with Lee Hamilton, the former Congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, and at the time the Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The U.S. Department of Energy took note of the editorial and hosted a large gathering celebrating the speech’s 50th anniversary at the Watergate Hotel the following October. The Woodrow Wilson Center held a conference on the speech’s 50th anniversary, December 8.
In a cover story discussing the celebrations of the 50th Anniversary of the Atoms for Peace speech, I mentioned that I grew up in a neighborhood with some interesting neighbors (UxC: Ux Weekly 17-49, December 8, 2003). In addition to Congressman Hamilton, Brian LaPlante, who lived in the house behind my parents, was the liaison between the armed forces and the White House at the time Eisenhower was first elected President. Brian had the task of informing President-elect Eisenhower that the Soviets had developed the hydrogen bomb while Eisenhower was on the green at the Masters golf course in Augusta shortly following his election.
I will mention one more atomic link to my neighborhood. When he was doing research for the movie JFK, Oliver Stone was a frequent visitor to our neighborhood as he was working with Fletcher Prouty, a neighbor who was Mr. X in the movie, portrayed by Donald Sutherland. Of course, Mr. Stone’s most recent work is Nuclear Now, stressing the need for nuclear power to combat climate change as renewables by themselves will not be sufficient.
Ever since the 50th anniversary of the speech, I have written articles on the 5-year anniversaries. Earlier this year, I even wrote one for the 69th anniversary, due to the remarkable time we find ourselves with respect to the atom. Quite simply, there is probably no time in history that the stakes between the good and bad atom have been as high. It is thus not surprising that this year has seen the movies Nuclear Now and Oppenheimer to remind us of the promise and peril of the atom. Significantly, the promise of the atom was recently recognized at COP28 as a group of 22 nations agreed to work to triple nuclear power capacity by 2050.
I have even incorporated the atoms for peace theme into one of my presentations. In 2006, I was invited to present a paper at a Russian energy conference held at the Kremlin. The title of my talk was “Atoms for Peace in a New Era.” The outlook for nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and Russia was much more hopeful then, as we were in the middle of the 20-year deal where the highly enriched uranium (HEU) in Russian nuclear warheads was being downblended as fuel for U.S. reactors. As a result of this initiative, a large portion of U.S. low-enriched uranium needs were met by this ex-warhead material. A little over ten years later, there is the prospect that soon there will be no Russian enriched uranium available for U.S. reactors, as the U.S. Congress seeks to ban imports of Russian uranium. Although the proposed legislation allows for a temporary waiver, Russia could potentially retaliate by immediately halting all nuclear fuel exports to the U.S.
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the HEU deal agreement between the U.S. and Russia, where the highly enriched uranium (HEU) from 20,000 Russian nuclear warheads was blended down into fuel for light water reactors over a twenty-year period. I was aware of the idea behind the HEU deal from its incipiency. In November 1989, I wrote an article with Tom Neff about the potential for the United States to increase nuclear fuel trade with the then Soviet Union, taking advantage of the abundant U.S. supply of depleted uranium (tails) and Soviet centrifuge technology. The article proposed shipping U.S. depleted uranium to the Soviet Union to be enriched and exported back to the United States as natural uranium equivalent to be overfed in U.S. enrichment plants, tantamount to importing cheap electricity and technology from the Soviet Union.
While at the time this suggestion may have seemed farfetched, the article contained one additional, even more radical, idea:
“…even obsolete warheads can be blended down to reactor levels (a kilogram of weapons-grade uranium contains the same enrichment as about fifty kilograms of reactor fuel).”
I believe that this was the first time such a concept was broached. However, there was a tremendous amount of work that needed to be done to make this concept a reality.
In 1991, Tom wrote an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times entitled “A Grand Uranium Bargain” which suggested what was to become the HEU deal. The twenty-year agreement was signed in 1993 and concluded in 2013. In 1997, Tom was awarded the Leo Szilard Lectureship Award, given annually by the American Physical Society for “outstanding accomplishments by physicists in promoting the use of physics for the benefit of society” in recognition of his efforts to conceive of and shepherd the HEU deal.
The 1989 article was written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall; a time the Soviet Union was changing (remember glasnost and perestroika?) and the Cold War was waning. This was a fascinating time for me, as I studied Soviet economics in graduate school and was involved in the nuclear fuel industry. I had a keen interest in the substitutability of uranium and enrichment, and earlier in 1989, I had a paper published in the Energy Journal on this subject. As a side note, I was later to discover that Rouss Hall, the building that housed the economics department and classrooms at the University of Virginia where I attended, was the location of the U.S. centrifuge enrichment program headed by Dr. Jesse Beams during World War II.
Since the HEU deal was signed in 1993 and had a duration of 20 years, this is also the 10th anniversary of the deal’s end in 2013. At its conclusion, I interviewed Tom for the Ux Weekly where he reflected on the deal’s accomplishments (UxC: Ux Weekly 27-50, December 16, 2013). That same year, I penned “What Comes After the HEU Deal,” presented at Atomexpo 2013, held in St. Petersburg, Russia, examining potential other ways the U.S. and Russia could cooperate in the nuclear arena.
In the same cover story that suggested various celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Atoms for Peace speech, I mentioned starting a website, atompeace.org. It took until 2018, when I “retired” from the day-to-day operations of UxC to start up that site. Better late than never.
Atompeace.org has been part of UxC’s outreach effort for the past five years. The purpose is educational, stressing the positive aspects of the atom through a series of news briefs, articles, and research papers, but also examining ways of mitigating the negative aspects of the atom, touching on nonproliferation issues. Atompeace.org has also been a vehicle where UxC has supported projects in keeping with the goals of the company and the website.
Since atompeace.org was established, we have posted thousands of news briefs that dealt with the positive aspects of the atom, written dozens of articles, and included a handful of longer pieces under our research section. Most of the articles and papers that have appeared on atompeace.org are original, but some were previously published in the Ux Weekly (some of the original Atompeace articles were later published in the Weekly as well) or in other UxC publications. In addition, several of the articles and the research papers originally appeared in the Energy Forum publication of the International Association of Energy Economics, where they reached a broader audience.
Since atompeace.org was established, the world has seen some major developments. These include the COVID pandemic, the growing interest in cryptocurrencies, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, growing concerns about climate change, and the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) as a disruptive technology. We are using the atompeace.org platform to address these and other issues to cover the increasing variety of subjects which impact and are impacted by nuclear energy.
The name “Atompeace” is obviously a takeoff on Greenpeace, but it is interesting the extent to which environmentalists have embraced nuclear energy over this period, blurring – but certainly not eliminating – the lines between Greenpeace and Atompeace. The role of nuclear energy in combatting climate change is seen in a much more positive light. In this regard, I even wrote an article entitled “The Greening of Uranium,” in January 2022, noting how increased acceptance of nuclear power in the financial community was a harbinger of increased political acceptance of this vital energy source.
Developments since that time have only reinforced this sentiment. In the corporate world, Microsoft and Google are looking to incorporate nuclear power into their electricity supply chains, as both require continuous and environmentally friendly sources to support the increasing energy needs associated with artificial intelligence and computer applications. As mentioned above, COP28 has seen greater recognition and support for nuclear energy to meet climate objectives.
During the existence of Atompeace, we have had two major initiatives. One has been supporting Ukrainian atomic workers. This has been done in various ways, including contributions to the ANS-ENS Ukrainian Nuclear Workers Humanitarian Fund and in-kind contributions to Ukraine’s nuclear industry. To this end, over the past two years, UxC has devoted its annual Atomic Runners Event to focus on support of Ukrainian causes, particularly the nation’s atomic workers.
Our support of the Ukrainian atomic workers is very personal to the company and the goals of this website. Anya Bryndza, our Executive Vice President, International, is a native of Ukraine. Anya oversees our annual Atomic Runners event, which invites industry participants from around the world to participate in both virtual and in-person running events.
Our other major initiative has been supporting the Tellus Science Museum. Tellus is associated with the Smithsonian and is one the most popular science museums in the United States. Our effort with Tellus has been to enhance the understanding of nuclear energy’s contribution to the future and how this role fits with other technologies in the fight against climate change and global poverty. To this end, over the past several years Tellus has increased its focus on nuclear energy. We are currently in the process of funding design studies that would form the basis of a permanent expansion of the museum that would deal with energy transition, including the key role of nuclear energy. Our hope is that during the next five years, both the expansion of the museum and the expansion of nuclear energy will be realized.
Since the Atompeace outreach effort is funded by UxC, we would not be able to pursue these initiatives without the support of the industry and our many clients and sponsors. Atompeace is technically not a nonprofit, but as an outreach of UxC we seek to provide education and support for the future of nuclear energy and other peaceful uses of the atom. Just like the nuclear industry has invested in us, we want to invest in the industry. We are looking forward to next year when we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the company and continue our mission.
Jeff Combs is founder, owner, and Chairman of UxC, LLC (UxC) and is a leading expert in the nuclear fuel market, with over 45 years of experience providing economic analysis and forecasting for the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle. He has extensive and varied expertise, overseeing UxC market reports, providing strategic consulting to major commercial companies in the nuclear fuel industry, and advising governments and international organizations on market and policy issues. Under his management, UxC has grown to become the world’s pre-eminent nuclear fuel market information and analysis company, issuing reports and publishing prices for all front-end nuclear fuel markets. In 2007, UxC teamed with CME/NYMEX to introduce the world’s first uranium futures contract. That same year UxC began reporting on the backend of the fuel cycle. In 2018, Mr. Combs created the atompeace.org website to advance understanding of peaceful uses of the atom in today’s world. During his career, Mr. Combs has presented papers at a variety of nuclear industry and energy economics conferences throughout the world. In addition, he has had his work published in academic and public policy journals. Mr. Combs earned a bachelor's degree in Economics at the University of Virginia, where he also completed his doctoral course work in economics. He is a charter member of the International Association of Energy Economics and is a member of the American Nuclear Society.