The United States' Department of Energy's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration plans over the next few years to more than triple capacity to produce tritium at the commercial Watts Bar reactor in Tennessee. A mix of tritium and deuterium is maintained in a small reservoir in each (U.S.) nuclear weapon to boost the warhead's explosive power. U.S. nuclear weapons policy calls on the Department of Energy to maintain fresh tritium in the deployed arsenal of atomic warheads carried by ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles and bomber aircraft.
This budget year alone, the NNSA is seeking a US$27.3 million boost for its "tritium readiness" effort, in which production will increase from 240 to 544 rods per cycle at a cost of US$77.5 million, the NNSA fiscal 2012 funding request to Congress states. By 2020, the agency intends to boost production to 1,700 rods each cycle. The Obama administration seeks to spend $270.5 million on tritium readiness between fiscal 2013 and 2016, producing no fewer than 240 rods per cycle as a minimum "sustaining rate" during that period.
The readiness program also includes the process of extracting tritium from the irradiated rods at the Energy Department's Savannah River Site and of maintaining military reserves of the gas.
Tritium production has gone a bit slower than anticipated because more of the gas than expected has leached from rods at Watts Bar into reactor coolant water. That has left slightly less tritium available to extract from each rod. The nuclear agency is thus exploring options for further increasing its production capacity, the notice states.
A mix of tritium - a radioactive isotope of hydrogen - and deuterium is maintained in a small reservoir in each U.S. nuclear weapon to boost the warhead's explosive power. Just a few grams of the gas, injected into the hollow pit of a warhead's primary stage, initiate a chain reaction and trigger a much more powerful secondary stage.
U.S. nuclear weapons policy calls on the Energy Department to maintain fresh tritium in the deployed arsenal of atomic warheads carried by ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles and bomber aircraft.
Continuing a policy from previous administrations, the Obama White House is also keeping roughly 2,290 warheads in an active hedge reserve force that receives regular maintenance and is kept stocked with tritium, according to Nuclear Matters. This stockpile hedge force constitutes more than one fully assembled backup warhead for each strategic warhead deployed at bomber aircraft bases, on ICBMs or on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. One key distinction between a warhead in the active force -- either deployed or hedge -- and one that has been deactivated is that the tritium reservoir in the active warhead is routinely replaced every few years to ensure that the weapon's radioactive gas does not expire.
But not everyone sees new production as a must. If the United States can deactivate warheads at an average rate of at least 5 percent every year, "there would be no need to produce additional tritium," said Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists. That would offset the roughly 5 percent rate of annual decay in tritium in the remaining warheads, he said. Others raised additional tolls that tritium production might take. "I don't think people realize that this material is being produced in a commercial reactor and it does have environmental and health implications near the production sites," said Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth. He said that heightened levels of tritium are present in groundwater near the tritium-handling facilities, and that the long-term consequences are not well understood even if the chemical levels fall within of government-approved limits.
Source: Global Security Newswire, 28 October 2011
Contact: Tom Clements, Friends of the Earth, 1100 15th Street NW, 11th Floor, Washington, DC 20005 USA
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