U.S. Civilian Nuclear Reactor to Produce Weapons Material

In a break from decades-long U.S. policy, a civilian nuclear power reactor will generate power (for homes and businesses) while producing materials for nuclear weapons. The Watts Bar Nuclear Station, operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), returned to operation Oct. 20, equipped with rods that will allow TVA to produce tritium for the Department of Energy.

Workers began inserting tritium-producing burnable absorber rods at Watts Bar in early September. The rods will be removed in 18 months at the end of the reactor’s normal fuel cycle. The Energy Department will then send these bars to a tritium-extraction facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Tritium is a short-lived isotope of hydrogen used to boost the yield of nuclear weapons. Its half-life of 12 years requires that the material be replenished and regularly replaced in nuclear weapons. Renewed production at Watts Bar will allow the Energy Department to avoid tapping into its five-year tritium reserve, which it would otherwise be expected to do sometime in 2005. The U.S. government has not made tritium since 1988, when it stopped production at its Savannah River Site due to operational and safety problems. Since then, the United States has recycled tritium from dismantled nuclear weapons to meet its stockpile requirements.

The Energy Department chose to produce tritium in a commercial reactor despite criticism that such action would blur the distinction between nuclear technology used for civilian and military purposes and undermine the credibility of U.S. nonproliferation policies. However, the Energy Department determined that using commercial reactors would be more flexible and cost-effective than the alternative construction of a new reactor dedicated to tritium production. Last year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved requests to allow tritium production at TVA’s Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear power facilities. (See ACT, November 2002.)

However, John Moulton, a TVA spokesman, said that there were “no plans at this time” to begin tritium production at the Sequoyah facility, although he acknowledged that the Sequoyah reactors remain in “standby phase” for future production of the material.