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U.S. utility gets green light for weapons work

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(October 4, 2002) The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has approved production of tritium for nuclear weapons at the Watts Bar-1 and Sequoyah-1 and 2 reactors operated by Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This news comes as environmental assessments are underway for factories to convert old weapons plutonium into MOX fuel, and to produce new plutonium pits for nuclear weapons.

(574.5440) WISE Amsterdam - TVA signed a contract with the Department of Energy (DOE) to produce the tritium on 8 December 1999 (see WISE News Communique 523.5127, "U.S.: TVA signs contract to produce tritium").

Instead of using military facilities to produce tritium, the idea is to replace "burnable absorber" rods in the core of reactors at nuclear power stations with special lithium-containing rods. These rods absorb neutrons, just like burnable absorber rods, but produce tritium as they do so. After 18 months in the reactor, the rods are removed during refueling and shipped to the DOE's Savannah River Site where the tritium is extracted.

The process has already been tested with 32 rods at Watts Bar, which were removed in 1999 and tested by the DOE. The NRC's license amendments allow three reactors (Watts Bar-1 and Sequoyah-1 and 2) each to load up to 2,300 tritium-producing rods. Production is scehduled to begin at Sequoyah-2 and Watts Bar-1 in the fall of 2003, and at Sequoyah-1 in fall 2004.

Tritium is a radioactive gas with a half-life of 12.3 years which is used to boost the power of nuclear weapons. Its production in civil reactors breaks down one of the remaining barriers between commercial and military uses of nuclear energy - a dangerous development at any time, and particularly so now the world is on the brink of war in the Middle East.


The Belgian government has once more postponed a decision on the fabrication of lead test assemblies (LTAs) using ex-weapons plutonium in the Belgian MOX plant in Dessel. Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has come under pressure from the green parties (Agalev and Ecolo) in the government coalition over the issue. A group of over 100 NGOs including NIRS and several WISE offices sent a letter to Verhofstadt in August, urging him to reject the plan.
E-mail from For Mother Earth, 3 October 2002;

Local residents could also be in danger. The TVA's own study shows that the calculated tritium dose to the most highly-exposed members of the public would be about 63% of the NRC annual exposure guideline for airborne effluents. This does not leave much room for maneuver - particularly if there are accidents.

Plutonium merry-go-round
The NRC is also currently evaluating the environmental effects of a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel plant to be built at the Savannah River Site, as part of the U.S.-Russian plan to each dispose of 34 metric tons of ex-weapons plutonium. Once converted into MOX, the ex-weapons plutonium is intended for use in Duke Energy's Catawba and McGuire nuclear power stations (see WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 570.5416, "Plutonium hits the road despite 'dirty bomb' scare").

MOX fuel, a mixture of mostly uranium oxide with some plutonium oxide, makes reactors harder to control and causes greater radiation releases in the event of an accident. Irradiated MOX is also more dangerous than conventional irradiated fuel.

Immobilizing the ex-weapons plutonium can reduce these dangers, but the DOE rejected this option in January, leaving just the MOX option (see WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 562, "In brief).

Furthermore, while some weapons plutonium is intended for conversion to MOX, more plutonium is to be turned into new plutonium pits, which form the core of nuclear weapons. The DOE says it will prepare an environmental impact statement on a proposed US$4.1 billion factory to be built at one of five possible sites.

The front-runner amongst these sites is the Savannah River Site, the same complex proposed for the MOX plant. Indeed, one step of the process - plutonium purification, sometimes known as "polishing" - is common to both MOX fuel and plutonium pit production. This has given rise to the possibility that the distinction could be blurred between plutonium earmarked for "new" pits and "old" plutonium earmarked for MOX. The NRC have confirmed this possibility in response to questions from Mary Olson (NIRS Southeast) at public meetings.

NIRS NIX MOX Campaign believes that the tritium and MOX production plans "violate every non-proliferation principle advanced by the U.S. government for decades." A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal described the commercial use of plutonium in MOX as "a gift to the world's terrorists and rogue states".


Contact: NIRS Southeast