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June 2, 2022
Civil Reactors to Replenish U.S. Tritium Supply
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January/February 2000

In a departure from the long-standing U.S. tradition of separating civilian and military nuclear reactors, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced December 22 that the Department of Energy (DOE) had reached an agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to produce tritium for U.S. nuclear weapons in TVA's civilian light-water reactors at the Watts Bar nuclear plant near Knoxville. Production is currently scheduled to begin in 2003.

Tritium, which the United States has not produced since 1988, is a radioactive gas used to boost the yield of nuclear weapons. The United States currently maintains a five-year reserve supply of tritium-a store based on the time required to restart production at former tritium-producing reactors that were shut down because of safety concerns-but supplies are decaying. Using TVA's reactors would allow the United States to reduce its reserve to a two-year supply, since TVA's reactors need only two years to begin tritium production.

If the United States maintains its current nuclear arsenal under START I, reserve nuclear warheads and a sizable tritium reserve, it will need a new source of tritium by 2005. If the United States further reduces its arsenal to the warhead ceiling allowed under START II while maintaining a reserve sufficient to return to START I levels, it will not need a new tritium supply until 2011.

DOE has pursued and continues to fund several other options for tritium production, including construction of a particle accelerator or a new light-water reactor, or completion of a light-water reactor already under construction in Bellefonte, Alabama. DOE chose to use TVA's reactors primarily because of the low cost, but the department continues to fund alternatives in case the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is scheduled to complete a review of the TVA option by next summer, fails to approve the use of TVA reactors.

Producing tritium in civilian power reactors could have unintended consequences for U.S. arms control and non-proliferation efforts, potentially undercutting the policy of encouraging other states to not use civil reactors for military purposes.