Tritium passes into reactor coolant
The Tennessee Valley Authority has been producing tritium (a radioactive isotope of hydrogen) for thermonuclear weapons at its Watts Bar Unit 1 nuclear power plant in Spring City, Tenn., since 2004. Tritium-producing burnable absorber rods (TPBARs) are irradiated in the reactor to produce tritium. It had been estimated that tritium permeation through TPBAR cladding into the reactor cooling water would be no more than one tritium curie/TPBAR/year. However, after several years of experience, it has been determined that tritium permeation is approximately three to four times higher.
Although tritium releases to the environment have been below regulatory limits, the National Nuclear Security Administration in charge of nuclear weapons was to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for tritium production.
Tritium the hydrogen in hydrogen bombs boosts the explosive force of nuclear weapons and is used in every warhead in the U.S. arsenal. It is a biological hazard because it can replace the ordinary hydrogen in water, becoming a radiation hazard when inhaled, ingested via food or water, or absorbed through the skin.
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2013
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has confirmed that the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina has received it first shipment of nuclear rods containing tritium, a radioactive gas that is a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. The special Tritium Producing Burnable Absorber Rods (TPBARs) were irradiated in the Tennessee Valley Authoritys civilian Watts Bar reactor, thus demonstrating that commercial nuclear power reactors can be used as an integral part of a nuclear weapons program.
The Watts Bar Nuclear Plant resumed operation in October 2003 to produce tritium for weapons as well as electricity for homes and factories. (See PeaceMeal, Nov/Dec 2003) The dual-use operation transgresses more than half a century of strict separation of Americas commercial and military nuclear programs.
According to Tom Clements, an independent nuclear consultant, This whole program sends out a dangerous signal internationally that its acceptable to produce nuclear weapons materials in commercial reactors. At a time when concerns about proliferation of nuclear materials are rising, the U.S. should not be engaged in a program that affirms the nuclear weapons-nuclear power connection. While the U.S. wags a finger at Iran for the perceived risks of its nuclear power program, it is silently demonstrating that nuclear power programs do indeed present an obvious proliferation risk.
The DOE anticipates extracting the tritium in July 2007, if the new Tritium Extraction Facility (TEF) at SRS becomes operational. The half-billion-dollar TEF is now undergoing start-up testing. Existing tritium facilities at SRS receive and recharge tritium canisters removed from nuclear warheads.
Tritium boosts the explosive power of fission weapons and is essential in thermonuclear weapons. Its half- life of 12.5 years results in a need for periodic replenishment. However, with recycling of tritium from dismantled warheads, there is no need for new tritium production. The existing U.S. inventory of tritium can supply a stockpile of 1,000 nuclear warheads until 2040 and a smaller stockpile until the end of the 21st century.
compiled from The Sunflower and
Peacemeal, Nov/December 2005
After a 15-year hiatus, the United States has resumed production of tritium for nuclear weapons, and the Tennessee Valley Authority has joined the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. TVAs commercial Watts Bar Nuclear Plant resumed operation in October to produce tritium for nuclear weapons as well as electricity for homes and factories. The dual-use operation transgresses more than half a century of strict separation of Americas commercial and military nuclear programs.
Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, boosts the explosive force of nuclear weapons and is used in every warhead in the U.S. arsenal. It is the hydrogen in hydrogen bombs. The gaseous tritium isotope has a half-life of 12.3 years and decays at a rate of 5.5 percent per year. By comparison, plutonium 239 Hanfords historic A-bomb fuel has a half-life of 24,000 years.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees nuclear weapons production for the Department of Defense, hasnt made tritium since 1988 when its production reactors at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina were permanently shut down for operational and safety problems. DOE has since been recycling tritium from dismantled nuclear warheads and contends there is a need for additional tritium.
A program to develop a new source of tritium production was subsequently undertaken. In a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Tritium Supply program released in April 1995, the government rejected tritium production in commercial reactors as an "unreasonable alternative," citing its long-standing no-dual-use policy. When the final EIS was published in September 1995, however, the commercial reactor option had inexplicably become a "reasonable alternative."
The decision was made during the Clinton administration (December 1988) to produce tritium in two of TVAs commercial nuclear power plants Watts Bar and Sequoyah in the course of their normal production of electricity for the civilian electric grid. That decision violated a U.S. policy against using commercial nuclear reactors for nuclear weapons production that had been scrupulously respected by every president since Harry Truman.
A DOE project to demonstrate tritium production in the Watts Bar reactor was already underway at the time. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at Hanford had the lead role in that since- completed project. PNNL designed, built, and tested tritium target assemblies consisting of pencil-thick tubes almost 15-feet long, filled with pellets of lithium aluminate, and bundled together.
In early September this year, TVA workers began installing production tritium target assemblies in the Watts Bar reactor while it was being refueled. The target assemblies were placed among the fuel rods in the reactor core, where neutron irradiation will convert the lithium aluminate into tritium.
The next step in the production process is to extract the tritium at a new Tritium Extraction Facility (TEF) under construction at DOEs Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. Construction of the TEF is behind schedule, and the 2006 target date for operation has been pushed back to 2007. The half-completed Savannah River facility is expected to cost $500 million $100 million over budget.
The alleged need for a new tritium supply is based solely on a policy of maintaining the massive overkill capability of the Cold War era. That policy violates a United States treaty obligation under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty to achieve nuclear disarmament, an obligation not even considered in Tritium Supply program documents. On the contrary, the documents lay out plans to maintain a static level of tritium production for an arsenal of some 10,000 warheads for the indefinite future. In fact, the operation of planned new tritium supply facilities until the middle of this century is not based on any projected schedule for achieving disarmament, but only on an assumed design life for the facilities.
The national security of the United States does not require any new supply of tritium. A 1997 study on The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy by the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control examined in depth the question: how much is enough? The NAS study concluded that "roughly 300 nuclear weapons ... should be adequate to preserve the core [deterrence] function." That conclusion was essentially corroborated by a December 1997 report of the National Defense Panel, a group of military and civilian defense experts chartered by Congress to think about what our future military should look like. The NDP concluded that our nation could deter its enemies with roughly 10,000 fewer nuclear weapons than we now possess. The existing U.S. inventory of tritium can supply a stockpile of 1,000 nuclear warheads until 2040 and a smaller stockpile until the end of the 21st century.
In 1996, the International Court of Justice issued a unanimous opinion on the illegality of use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. The opinion also reinforced the Non-Proliferation Treaty requirement for the nuclear powers to actually achieve nuclear disarmament, not merely conduct ongoing negotiations. Following the World Court opinion, however, a proposal to eliminate nuclear weapons by the year 2020, made by the Group of 21 Non-Aligned Nations to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, was not even accepted for discussion by the United States and other nuclear powers.
In 1997 for the first time ever, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for negotiation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention to ban such weapons and specify a schedule of verified step-by-step reductions of nuclear arsenals. The resolution was adopted despite opposition from the U.S.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently called on the United States to set an example to the rest of the world by cutting its nuclear arsenal and halting nuclear weapons research programs. But our government has continually rebuffed all attempts to define or negotiate a schedule for nuclear disarmament. The 2002 treaty signed by President Bush and Russian President Putin does not eliminate any nuclear warheads. It gives both countries 10 more years to merely remove some warheads from delivery systems and permits the warheads to be stockpiled intact.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibits the "diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." With the Bush administration invoking the NPT in arguments that Iran and North Korea should not produce nuclear weapons materials, our use of the TVA reactor to produce tritium is an especially deplorable manifestation of the U.S. "do as we say, not as we do" nuclear weapons posture. That posture is increasingly irritating to other friendly nations because it undermines international efforts toward nuclear disarmament.
As long as nuclear weapons exist, we remain their potential victims. After the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the U.S. policy of maintaining a nuclear stockpile of some 10,000 warheads is dangerous and scandalous. As syndicated columnist Geneva Overholser observed several years ago, "When it comes to nuclear weapons, we Americans are shameless hypocrites."
compiled from Knoxville News-Sentinel,
Associated Press, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and archives
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2003
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)
The Department of Energy has received bids and expects to award a contract around May for the job of assembling targets that will be used to create tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that boosts the explosive power of nuclear weapons.
The tritium target assemblies consist of pencil-thick tubes almost 15-feet long that are filled with pellets of lithium aluminate and bundled together. The target assemblies are placed among the fuel assemblies in the core of a commercial reactor where neutron irradiation converts the lithium aluminate into tritium.
The company selected for the contract is to produce 6,000 of the targets by March 2003 and then manufacture 4,000 a year for 10 more years.
Link to complete article in the Tri-City Herald.
- PeaceMeal, March/April 2000
The good news is that Hanford's Fast Flux Test Facility won't be used to make tritium for nuclear weapons. The bad news is that DOE's Tritium Supply program is still moving forward.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's announcement in late December left the door open for possible other use of the FFTF, which has been dormant since 1993. DOE is to decide in April whether there are other missions that justify further use of the experimental reactor. Proposed uses include production of medical isotopes and production of plutonium 238 for thermoelectric generators in spacecraft.
Richardson selected TVA's electricity-producing Watts Bar reactor for tritium production. The choice of the operating civilian power reactor was based on its proven technology and its flexibility and low cost of production. It is the only option considered that doesn't require a large capital expenditure for construction of new facilities. Research will continue on a proposed accelerator for tritium production, but there are no plans to actually build one because of prohibitive costs.
Richardson's decision will expand a 15-month-old DOE project to demonstrate tritium production in the Watts Bar reactor. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at Hanford has the lead role in that project. PNNL designed and built the 32 tritium-producing rods that are being irradiated in Watts Bar and will analyze them after irradiation. Related experimental work at PNNL was responsible for two accidental tritium releases of 118 curies and 68 curies last year.
The use of a civilian reactor for military purposes overturns a prohibition that has been at the heart of United States nuclear policy for half a century. Such use also violates a main provision of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits the "diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices."
After our criticism of India, Pakistan, and Iraq's nuclear weapon programs, the TVA decision is an especially deplorable manifestation of our "do as we say, not as we do" nuclear posture. That posture is increasingly irritating to other friendly nations because it undermines international efforts to control nuclear weapons. As syndicated columnist Geneva Overholser observed, "When it comes to nuclear weapons, we Americans are shameless hypocrites."
- Jim Stoffels, chairman and editor
At a public hearing January 22, 1998, in the Richland Federal Building, World Citizens for Peace chairman Jim Stoffels testified in opposition to the deletion of cleanup milestones scheduled under the Tri-Party Agreement for the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) at Hanford. WCP's opposition is based on the proposed use of FFTF to produce tritium for nuclear weapons. Stoffels' statement follows.
The national security of the United States does not require any new supply of tritium. A secure nuclear deterrent force is maintained by a separate DOE program, the Stockpile Stewardship and Management program, on which we are spending $4 billion each year. The alleged need for a new tritium supply is based solely on a policy of maintaining the massive overkill capability of the Cold War era. That national policy violates United States treaty obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to achieve nuclear disarmament.
The issue of our nuclear deterrent force was addressed in a report just released December 1 by the National Defense Panel, a group of military and civilian defense experts chartered by Congress to think about what our future military should look like. The National Defense Panel concluded that our nation could deter its enemies with roughly 10,000 fewer nuclear weapons than we now possess.
The National Defense Panel essentially corroborated a study released last June by the National Academy of Sciences, which examined in depth the question "How much is enough?" The NAS study concluded that "roughly 300 nuclear weapons ... should be adequate to preserve the core [deterrence] function."
Through recycling, the existing U.S. supply of tritium can maintain an arsenal of 1,000 nuclear weapons into the middle of the next century.
After the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the policy of maintaining a nuclear stockpile of some 10,000 warheads is scandalous and dangerous. As long as nuclear weapons exist, we remain their potential victims.
Moreover, the Tritium Supply program to maintain that huge arsenal violates United States treaty obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT, which we signed 30 years ago, contains a commitment to negotiate a treaty on complete nuclear disarmament under effective international control.
Last year, the International Court of Justice issued an opinion that the NPT requires the nuclear powers to actually achieve nuclear disarmament. But our government has consistently rejected all proposals to begin negotiations leading to a Nuclear Weapons Convention to specify a schedule for verified step-by-step reductions of nuclear arsenals.
We understand the potential usefulness of medical isotopes in the treatment of cancer; but that distant benefit does not override the near-term use of FFTF to maintain a huge arsenal of thermonuclear warheads in violation of United States treaty obligations. A fundamental principle of morality is that the end does not justify the means.
Therefore, we oppose the deletion of cleanup milestones scheduled under the Tri-Party Agreement for the FFTF.
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 1998
The tritium-producing rods to be tested in the Watts Bar commercial nuclear reactor were made at Hanford in the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) operated by Battelle Memorial Institute. PNNL fabricated 32 tritium-producing, burnable absorber rods and shipped them in July to a Westinghouse Corporation plant in Columbia SC to be made into nuclear fuel assemblies. According to PNNL project manager Jerry Ethridge, "This $20 million program has touched, in one way or another, practically every organization in the Laboratory."
- Battelle World
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 1997
The United States government is pursuing a new tritium supply program in order to maintain a large nuclear arsenal for the indefinite future. Tritium, a key ingredient of most nuclear weapons, needs to be replenished periodically because it decays at a rate of 5.5% per year. Plans of the Administration and Congress to build multi-billion-dollar tritium production facilities are in blatant violation of United States nuclear treaty obligations to achieve nuclear disarmament.
The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed by the United States 29 years ago, contains a commitment to work toward nuclear disarmament. The opinion rendered last year by the International Court of Justice on the illegality of nuclear weapons asserts that the NPT requires the nuclear powers to actually achieve nuclear disarmament, not merely conduct ongoing negotiations.
When the NPT was extended indefinitely at the NPT Review and Extension Conference in 1995, the nuclear powers had to make three commitments:
1. Complete a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for the 1996 fall session of the United Nations General Assembly.
2. Bring to an "early conclusion" a ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
3. Engage in the "determined pursuit" of "systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons."
The first commitment was met, although it is questionable whether the CTBT will become law because of India's refusal to sign unless the nuclear powers commit to nuclear disarmament.
The second commitment leaves a giant loophole. A ban on the production of fissile material is irrelevant to the United States and Russia. Both countries have so much weapons grade plutonium that the problem they face is disposal. The same is not the case for tritium, a fusion material used to boost the explosive power of nuclear weapons. Tritium would not be covered by a production ban limited to fissile material.
The third commitment above is blatantly violated by the U.S. policy decision to renew tritium production. The current U.S. supply of tritium (about 75 kilograms) would supply 1,000 nuclear warheads until 2040 and a smaller stockpile until the end of the 21st century. There is no reason why the United States and other nuclear weapon States should not have reduced their stockpiles well below current treaty limits by the year 2020 and eliminated nuclear weapons entirely by the middle of the 21st century. The policy decision to produce more tritium signals U.S. intent to flout its obligation to negotiate to achieve nuclear disarmament.
To carry out that policy, the Department of Energy (DOE) has issued a Record of Decision to begin work on the two most promising tritium supply alternatives:
1. Initiate purchase of an existing commercial reactor (operating or partially complete) or of irradiation services with an option to purchase the reactor for conversion to a defense facility; and
2. Design, build, and test critical components of a proton accelerator system for tritium production.
A decision on which alternative to implement fully is to be made by the end of 1997.
Even though defense production in civilian reactors is illegal, DOE is planning a demonstration test of tritium production in a commercial nuclear reactor this year (September 1997). DOE argues that the test, to be carried out in TVA's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, would not violate the NPT because the amount to be produced would be small and it wouldn't be used in weapons.
The test does violate the third commitment above, however, as it demonstrates a definite intent to maintain a large nuclear arsenal rather than a "determined pursuit" of nuclear disarmament. In fact, DOE has declared its intent to operate tritium supply facilities "well into the middle of the next century."
Although significant reductions of the nuclear arsenals of the United States and former Soviet Union are resulting from the START I and START II treaties, neither treaty dictates a limit on stockpile size. The treaties limit only the numbers of warheads that can actually be loaded on strategic delivery systems. The START I Treaty limit is 6,000 warheads and the START II protocol limit is 3,500 warheads.
Current U.S. national security policy is to keep the option to reconstitute the stockpile to START I levels, that is, to keep at least 6,000 warheads loaded or stored. This policy is the driving force behind the alleged need to have a new tritium production facility operational by the year 2011.
There is a no-cost alternative to this tritium supply program, one which would strengthen rather than violate the NPT: a negotiated ban on tritium production. A proposal for a mutual, verifiable tritium production ban was put forth in 1988 the same year the last tritium production reactor at the Savannah River Site was shut down. The proposal was made by a group of eminent U.S. scientists, including two former heads of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory (that is, two former heads of nuclear weapons design) and two Nobel laureates, in collaboration with the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington DC.
Objections to the original proposal to ban tritium production are now largely irrelevant. Since 1988, the Cold War has ended; the former Soviet Union has disintegrated; and the START I, START II, and Comprehensive Test Ban treaties have been negotiated. The United States is helping Russia dismantle its nuclear weapons.
These dramatic political successes have built a solid foundation of confidence on which to base further disarmament treaties. A treaty to ban production of tritium is a next natural addition to this string of successes. The only requirement is that the U.S. forego its present commitment to nuclear weapons as a security blanket and adopt a true commitment to nuclear disarmament.
That change in attitud to seeing nuclear weapons as a threat to national security rather than a protection is becoming more prevalent among military leaders. General George Lee Butler, commander-in-chief of U.S. nuclear forces until 1994, and 60 other generals and admirals from 17 countries including the other nuclear powers, have called for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Following the World Court opinion last year, however, a proposal to eliminate nuclear weapons by the year 2020, made by the Group of 21 Non-Aligned Nations to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, was not even accepted for discussion by the United States and other nuclear powers.
Proposals for action:
All Nuclear Weapon States undertake a moratorium on tritium production.
Include a ban on tritium production in the proposed fissile material cut-off treaty.
Nuclear Weapon States fulfill their obligation to conclude negotiations on comprehensive nuclear disarmament.
Move nuclear disarmament forward, not backward!
NO to new tritium production facilities.
YES to a ban on tritium production.
PeaceMeal, March/April 1997