Tritium Production Licenses Granted to Civilian Power Plants

November 2002

By Christine Kucia

Breaking the taboo of using civilian nuclear reactors to supply nuclear weapons materials, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved licenses September 24 and October 1 to allow tritium production at two Tennessee nuclear power plants.

Tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, is used in a thermonuclear weapon to boost its yield. It must be replenished regularly because it has a half-life of only 12 years. With the license, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contractor, is authorized to insert tritium-producing burnable absorber rods into its Watts Bar and Sequoyah reactors. The rods will be irradiated over each reactor’s 18-month fuel cycle and then shipped to the DOE-owned Savannah River Site in South Carolina so that the tritium can be extracted for use in nuclear weapons.

The NRC granted the first license amendment September 24, which will allow the Watts Bar reactor to produce tritium in up to 2,304 burnable absorber rods. The Watts Bar reactor is expected to begin tritium production in the fall of 2003. On October 1, the NRC announced the approval of a second tritium production license for the Sequoyah nuclear power plant. Sequoyah’s reactor units 1 and 2 will each irradiate up to 2,256 tritium-producing burnable absorber rods for one fuel cycle. Sequoyah’s two reactors will commence tritium production separately, with Unit 2 beginning irradiation in the fall of 2003 and Unit 1 a year later. The DOE halted all tritium production in 1988. Although the tritium extracted from dismantled weapons can be used to meet short-term needs, the department sought to identify a new production source before 2005 to provide enough tritium to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile at START I levels, as required in a presidential directive. (See ACT, November/December 1998.) As a result of the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, also known as the Moscow Treaty, the tritium requirement might be lower in the future, but for now the DOE’s plans are based on START I numbers.

Following an extensive review of options, including building a linear accelerator or remodeling a mothballed nuclear power plant, in 1998 the DOE chose the less-costly option of using civilian light-water reactors for its production. The department designated the Watts Bar and Sequoyah facilities to produce tritium to help maintain the country’s nuclear arsenal. The license amendments for the two TVA-operated reactors allow the contractor to install and irradiate rods for the life of each power plant.

The United States has traditionally discouraged other countries from using their civilian nuclear capabilities for military purposes. Everet Beckner, deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration, maintained in an October 25 interview that the U.S. tritium decision does not reflect a shift in policy because “the use of the TVA reactors to irradiate [rods] is to support the existing U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.” He emphasized that “the United States is not producing new nuclear weapons and has not since 1989.”

According to Beckner, the United States has no plans to re-examine options for tritium production. “This approach was judged to be the least costly and offered the greatest flexibility in meeting changing demands. With the Moscow Treaty in place, tritium demands in the coming years are expected to decline.”