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Alumnus’ work transforms Russian warheads into American electricity

February 10, 2014

Russia's minister of atomic energy, Aleksandr Rumyantsev, second from left, at a 2002 dinner for Thomas L. Neff, second from right, who had worked with Mr. Rumyantsev on the uranium purchase agreement.Russia's minister of atomic energy, Aleksandr Rumyantsev, second from left, at a 2002 dinner for Thomas L. Neff, second from right, who had worked with Mr. Rumyantsev on the uranium purchase agreement.

At the Cold War’s end in 1991, amid global concern about what might happen to the destabilized Soviet Union’s vast number of warheads, Thomas L. Neff B.A. ’65 had an idea.

In a New York Times opinion piece, Neff suggested that Russia sell the uranium from its used weapons to the United States. He believed that this sale would be mutually beneficial: Russia needed money, and Americans could turn uranium into cheap fuel for electric utilities.

Neff’s idea evolved into the Megatons to Megawatts program, which has transformed 20,000 Russian warheads into roughly 10 percent of all electricity generated in the United States. This surpasses the amount of electricity derived from any other alternative energy source. In addition to establishing the program, Neff monitored it for nearly two decades. He suspects that he made about 20 trips to Russia and other former Soviet states in this effort of close oversight.

After studying physics and mathematics at Lewis & Clark, Neff went on to receive a doctoral degree in physics from Stanford University. He then became a senior researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he still works as a physicist. Neff specialized in energy studies during his time as a researcher, prompting him to author books about solar energy and the international uranium market in the early 1980s.

Russia’s last shipment of uranium made its way onto U.S. soil in December, acting as a testament to Neff’s perseverance. The New York Times now reports that Neff—despite his humble demeanor—has done more than any other individual to advance the popular goal of globally eliminating nuclear weapons.

Said Neff, “Lewis & Clark gave me a broad base for future work. I hope my story might motivate a student or two to try things they do not know cannot be done.”

Katrina Staaf ’16 contributed to this story.

Read the New York Times article

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