DOE Plans to Obtain Tritium From Existing Civilian Reactors

Craig Cerniello

RESOLVING A decade-long controversy over meeting future requirements for tritium, a key component of nuclear weapons, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced on December 22 that the United States will produce it in existing commercial light-water reactors rather than by building a new linear accelerator or through other options. Although DOE's plan, which will save billions of dollars, mixes the U.S. military and civilian nuclear programs, the department concluded that it will not pose a real challenge to U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy.

The United States has not produced tritium, which is used to boost the yield of thermonuclear weapons, since 1988. Although tritium decays at a rate of about 5 percent per year, thus far the United States has been able to replenish its supply from warheads that are currently being dismantled. However, the United States will need a new source of tritium by 2005 in order to sustain a START I force level (6,000 deployed, "accountable" strategic warheads) or by 2011 to support START II levels (3,000–3,500 deployed strategic warheads). Congress has mandated that the United States remain at START I levels until START II has entered into force.

To meet these future requirements, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson announced that the United States will produce tritium at the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) existing Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear power reactors, instead of through the construction of a new linear accelerator at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. Other options considered by DOE included TVA's unfinished Bellefonte reactor or Hanford's Fast Flux Test Facility in Washington. Using the existing reactors is "the only option that doesn't require a large capital expenditure," Richardson explained. "If our goal of reaching further arms reduction agreements is reached, we may not need to exercise this option for many years and we will pay for tritium only when it is needed."

Some critics of the DOE decision argue that it will undermine U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy by encouraging other countries to produce nuclear weapons components, such as plutonium, in commercial reactors. Yet, Joan Rohlfing, senior advisor to Secretary Richardson for national security, disagreed. "In no way is the administration…backing away from U.S. government policy to not encourage the reprocessing of plutonium—let alone the diversion of plutonium from a civil facility to a military purpose," said Rohlfing. She argued that tritium is in a different category than plutonium because a state "cannot make a nuclear weapon from tritium alone."


Nuclear Stockpile Developments

Also on December 22, Richardson stated that he and Secretary of Defense William Cohen had certified to President Clinton that the U.S. nuclear stockpile remains safe and reliable without underground nuclear testing. Clinton established this certification procedure in August 1995, when the United States announced that it would seek a "zero-yield" Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Similar certifications were made in 1996 and 1997.

That same day, Richardson also said the United States will build by 2005 a facility at the Savannah River site designed to disassemble plutonium pits from dismantled nuclear weapons. This facility will help the United States dispose of 50 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium as agreed in principle with Russia at the September 1998 Moscow summit. Negotiations between the United States and Russia on the text of the plutonium disposition agreement are still underway.