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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

97002: The Department of Energy's Tritium Production Program

Richard E. Rowberg
Science Policy Research Division

Clifford Lau
Science Policy Research Division

Updated September 16, 1997





Role of Tritium
Why It Is Needed
What Is Tritium and How Is It Made?
Tritium Production Technologies
Congressional Considerations
DOE Activities
Congressional Actions
Program Issues




Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen used to enhance the explosive yield of every thermonuclear weapon. Tritium has a radioactive decay rate of 5.5% per year and has not been produced in this country for weapons purposes since 1988 when the K Reactor at Savannah River Site in South Carolina was shut down for safety reasons.

To compensate for decay, tritium levels are being maintained in deployed warheads by recycling and reprocessing tritium recovered from dismantled nuclear weapons. To maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile at the level called for in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) II (not yet in force), however, a new tritium source would be needed by the year 2011. If the START I stockpile levels remain the target, as is now the case, tritium production would be needed by 2005.

On December 6, 1995, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued a Record of Decision to pursue a dual-track approach to develop the two options it considered most promising. The first is to investigate the purchase of the services of an existing commercial reactor or the reactor itself to supply radiation for transforming lithium into tritium. The second is to design, build, and test a particle accelerator to drive tritium-producing nuclear reactions. The Savannah River Site was selected as the site for an accelerator, should one be built. Recently, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the total cost -- construction and operating -- of purchasing irradiation ser- vices at $2.35 billion and the accelerator option at $6.72 billion over 1997-2010.

Both options could meet the 2011 deadline but only the commercial reactor option could be ready by 2005. If tritium is needed sooner, an interim source may be necessary. DOE is considering the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) in Hanford, WA as a backup option, which has generated considerable opposition on environmental and safety grounds.

Several issues remain to be resolved before a long term source can be built. Included are accelerator technical uncertainties, target development for the reactor option, cost uncertainties, regulatory requirements, potential environmental consequences, and nuclear proliferation concerns that may arise if civilian and defense nuclear operations are combined on a single facility.

DOE recently signed an agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority to use its Watts Bar plant to demonstrate tritium production in a nuclear reactor. Approval of that project by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission brought forth concerns about environmental protection and proliferation.

For FY1998, DOE requested $184.4 million for operating funds and $208 million for facilities. The versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY1998, recently passed by the House and Senate, would authorize that request as would the versions of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, 1998, just passed by the House and Senate. There remains concern in Congress, however, about the pace of the DOE program. The Senate Defense Authorization Bill would require DOE to make its decision on which track to follow by June 30, 1998. The Senate bill would also modify the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to allow civilian nuclear facilities to produce tritium for weapons.


Recently, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that selecting the reactor option over the accelerator option could reduce costs of the Stockpile Management Program by $1.9 billion through 2002 and $5.4 billion through 2010. On June 25, 1997, the House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act of FY1998, which authorized the DOE's request for FY1998 of $184.4 million for operating funds and $208 million for facilities for its tritium production activities. On July 11, the Senate passed its version also authorizing the request. On July 15, 1997 and July 25, 1997, the Senate and House respectively passed versions of the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, 1998, each providing the requested amount. On September 15, 1997, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a DOE-funded demonstration of tritium production in a reactor taking place in the Watts Bar facility owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Also on that date, DOE's request for proposals closed for supplying the services of a commercial reactor for tritium production. Bids were received from TVA and the Southern Company.


Role of Tritium

Why It Is Needed

Tritium is a crucial component of thermonuclear weapons. Tritium gas is used in every U.S. nuclear warhead to enhance its explosive yield. A typical thermonuclear device consists of two stages, a primary where the explosion is initiated, and a secondary where the main thermonuclear explosion takes place. The yield of the primary stage, and its effectiveness in driving the secondary to explode, is increased (boosted) by tritium gas which undergoes a nuclear fusion reaction with deuterium, and generates a large amount of neutrons to 'boost' the nuclear burn up of the plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

Tritium is radioactive and has a relatively short half-life of a little over 12 years. As a result, the supply of tritium in a newly manufactured weapon would decay by 5.5% per year to less than 1% of its original amount in seven half-lives or 87 years without replenishment. In the past, tritium for replenishment in existing weapons was produced in a nuclear reactor, called the K reactor, at the DOE Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. In 1988, the reactor was shut down for safety reasons, and no additional tritium has been produced in the U.S. for weapons purposes. Replenishment of tritium in the stockpile has continued, however, by recycling tritium from existing nuclear weapons as they are dismantled. In 1991, President Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II) which committed the major nuclear powers to a large reduction in their nuclear weapons stockpiles. As a result of this reduction, the stockpile's tritium levels have been maintained primarily by recycling the tritium from deactivated warheads without new tritium production.

By 1993, based on the annually updated Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Plan (NWSP), DOE and DOD determined that tritium production would need to be resumed by the year 2011 if the United States were to maintain its weapons stockpile at the levels set by START II. The NWSP is the blueprint by which DOE proposes to manage the nation's nuclear weapon's stockpile in the absence of testing. Because of the long lead time required to set up a tritium production facility, it was realized that development of preferred production options begin immediately. In the 1996-2001 NWSP, the President directed DOE to fully support the higher START I nuclear weapons level until START II is ratified by all parties and implemented. The United States Senate gave its advice and consent to ratify the treaty in January 1996 but Russia has not done so, and has no plans to in the foreseeable future. The START I level requires that new tritium production begin in the year 2005.

What Is Tritium and How Is It Made?

Tritium is a radioactive form, isotope, of hydrogen. Tritium atoms have a half-life of 12.43 years. When tritium undergoes radioactive decay, it converts to a stable, non-radioactive form, isotope, of helium, helium-3. The half-life is the time it takes for half of a given number of radioactive nuclei to be converted to helium-3.

Although tritium occurs naturally in the environment, the amount is too small for practical recovery. Therefore tritium for nuclear weapons must be produced artificially. There are two ways of producing tritium, both involving nuclear reactions using neutrons. In the first way, neutrons are made to strike a target consisting of a lithium/aluminum material. The neutrons react with the lithium, producing tritium and other byproducts. This technology has been used to produce tritium for several decades at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. In the second method, neutrons react with helium-3 to produce tritium and normal hydrogen as by-products. Although this process has been demonstrated, the helium-3 method has not yet been used in any tritium production system.

Tritium Production Technologies

The production of tritium requires the generation of energetic neutrons. There are two suitable ways of producing such neutrons: nuclear reactors and accelerators. In an accelerator, neutrons are produced by a process called spallation. Protons, accelerated in a particle accelerator to very high energies, strike a target made of tungsten. The energetic protons then knock neutrons and more protons off the tungsten atoms like billiard balls. These neutrons and protons then knock off more neutrons in a cascade fashion. In a nuclear reactor, energy is produced by nuclear fission, or splitting, of uranium and plutonium atoms. Neutrons are used to produce the fission in the first place, and a byproduct of this reaction is more neutrons. Most of these neutrons are used to create more fission reactions -- a chain reaction -- but some neutrons leave the reaction region -- the reactor core -- without initiating a fission reaction. These neutrons are available for other nuclear reactions including those that produce tritium. In both cases, the quantity of neutrons produced can be controlled by adjusting parameters inherent to the accelerator or nuclear reactor.

Congressional Considerations

DOE Activities

The responsibility of maintaining the country's nuclear weapons stockpile is assigned to the Department of Energy (DOE). The signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by President Clinton on September 24, 1996, banning further testing of nuclear weapons, contemplates that the U.S. nuclear weapon stockpile is to be maintained primarily with a science based approach using laboratory experiments and computer simulations. Weapons activities fall within DOE's Office of Defense Programs and consist of two major components: stockpile stewardship and stockpile management. The first of these is charged with research and development on ways to ensure the safety and reliability of the existing stockpile, and to preserve a core of weapons-related technical and scientific expertise. The stockpile management component is responsible for stockpile surveillance activities -- those activities designed to ensure the safety, reliability and performance of the existing stockpile, including remanufacture of existing weapons, and for all tasks related to the production of nuclear weapons. Tritium activities lie within the stockpile management program.

Historically tritium was produced at the K Reactor and other reactors at the Savannah River Site (SRS). As the reactors were shut down, tritium production declined and halted altogether in 1988 when the K Reactor was shut down for safety upgrades. In the same year, DOE started the New Production Reactor (NPR) project to develop a long term source of tritium to replace the aging K Reactor. In September 1992, the Bush Administration, under pressure from Congress and citing reduced tritium demands, decided to defer any further work on the NPR until 1995 and stopped all the reactor design efforts. With the signing of START II by President Bush in 1993, the number of active nuclear warheads and the need for tritium were dramatically reduced. At that time, the Department of Defense (DOD) and DOE concluded that recycling the existing tritium from the deactivated warheads could supply the needed tritium until a new source was ready.

By 1993 DOD and DOE both declared that due to the long lead time for construction of a new source and the depletion of tritium by radioactive decay, a tritium production development program must be started immediately. During the FY1993 budget process, Congress directed DOE to prepare and submit a report on tritium supplies and the necessary schedule to resume tritium production. Again in the FY1994 Defense Authorization Act, Congress directed DOE to study tritium production and identify the selected technology by March 1995. In March 1995 DOE released a draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) although it did not, at that time, make a decision on the selected technology. In October 1995 DOE issued its final PEIS.

Based on the analysis of the PEIS and other considerations, on December 6, 1995 the DOE issued the Record of Decision, Tritium Supply and Recycling Facilities, which committed DOE to pursue a dual track strategy to ensure an adequate tritium production capability. The dual track approach: (1) initiates the purchase of an existing commercial reactor or the lease of irradiation services from an existing reactor with an option to purchase the reactor and convert it to a defense facility; and (2) initiates design, construction and testing of critical components of an accelerator system for tritium production (called Accelerator Production of Tritium of APT). According to DOE, the reactor approach would be available by 2005 while the accelerator would be operational by 2007. The Savannah River Site (SRS) was selected as the location for an accelerator, should one be built. Furthermore, the tritium recycling facility at SRS will be upgraded and consolidated to support both options. On September 5, 1996, the Secretary of Energy selected Burns and Roe Enterprises, Inc., to demonstrate the APT concept at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and to design the accelerator at the SRS site.

On February 7, 1997, DOE selected the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant of the Tennessee Valley Authority, on a sole-source contract, for the commercial reactor test. This plant has been operating for less than a year. The purpose of the test is to demonstrate that tritium can be produced in the plant's fuel assembly without affecting the plant's operation. Currently the Watts Bar plant is undergoing refueling. As part of that effort, 32 of the fuel rods will be replaced by rods containing lithium. When this fuel cycle is complete in about 18 months, those rods will be removed and the tritium formed by the reaction of the reactor's neutrons with the lithium will be removed. About one ounce of tritium is expected. None of that tritium will be used in a nuclear weapon. The cost to DOE for this experiment is $7.5 million. The NRC must approve the use of Watts Bar for this demonstration. On August 11, 1997, the NRC held a public meeting in Oak Ridge to discuss the Watts Bar proposal. About 100 people attended, all of whom opposed the proposal. On September 15, 1997, the NRC granted its approval to the project.

On June 4, 1997, DOE issued a request for proposals for a fixed-price contract to provide a commercial reactor for sale or lease for production of tritium. Only pressurized water reactors with a heat rate of 2400 megawatts or more and which will be operating at full power by 2003 are being considered. The proposals were due by September 15, 1997, and DOE wants to award a contract, or contracts, by March 1998. Both TVA and the Southern Company have submitted bids. The TVA bid includes the Watts Bar plant and its uncompleted Bellefonte plant. TVA is currently reviewing options for the latter which would cost about $1.9 billion to complete. Part of the TVA proposal is to complete the plant, with government assistance, for its use as a tritium source. The Southern Company bid offers the Plant Vogtle located near Atlanta.

At the time of the decision, the target date for completion of the long term tritium source was still that set by START II requirements, the year 2011. With the shortening of the schedule as a result of the President's decision to use the START I stockpile numbers, DOE announced that an interim tritium source might be necessary if the accelerator option is selected. Recently, DOE announced that it will reconsider using the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) at Hanford as a back-up source for tritium production. In particular, the facility will remain open for at least 2 more years in a "hot standby" mode. In other words, it will be capable of starting up without the need to re-fuel. The FFTF had been scheduled for shut down, but recent reports by an independent study group, JASON indicated that the reactor could be used for interim production of tritium over the period 2006 to 2016.

For FY1998, DOE requested $184.4 million for operating funds and $208 million for facility construction. Within the operating funds are $132.1 MILLION to continue work at LANL on the development and demonstration of the APT concept, and $52.4 million to carry out activities preliminary to testing the commercial reactor concept including securing Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval for the test. For the commercial reactor option, in-reactor tests will take the place of fuel assemblies designed to produce small quantities of tritium in order to provide information needed to make the long term tritium source decision which is scheduled for late 1998. Within the facility funds are $39.4 million for the start of engineering design of a tritium extraction facility to be used in conjunction with the commercial reactor option, and $168.6 million to start preliminary design of an APT plant.

Congressional Actions

On June 25, 1997, the House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY1998 and FY1999. The House bill would provide the amount requested for the tritium production program. In the report accompanying the bill, the House National Security Committee expressed its continued support of the dual-track approach to developing a long-term tritium production technology. It noted, however, that DOE legislative proposals to change existing statutes in order to permit production of tritium in a commercial reactor did not arrive in time for consideration of this bill. The Committee noted that some of those changes may come under the jurisdiction of other committees. The Committee stated its intention to address these issues during the remainder of the 105th Congress.

On July 11, 1997, the Senate passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY1998. The Senate bill (S. 936) authorizes the tritium program to receive the amount requested by DOE. It would also require DOE to make its selection of a long-term tritium production technology by June 30, 1998. In a floor amendment, a provision was added to the bill that would amend the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to allow the Secretary of Energy to make use of commercial nuclear facilities licensed under that Act to demonstrate the feasibility of production of and to produce tritium for defense-related purposes. The report accompanying the bill from the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed continued concern that the current pace of the program is not adequate to meet the 2005 target date. The Committee also noted that DOE had not moved up its production technology decision date despite the additional funds provided in the FY1997 appropriation.

On July 15, 1997, the Senate approved the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, 1998, appropriating the requested amount, $184.49 million for FY1998. The Senate noted that a source to produce tritium was be developed as soon as possible. It also restated its support for the DOE dual-track program. On July 25, 1997, the House passed its version of the bill recommending appropriation of the requested amount. The Committee expressed its support for the dual-track approach. As in the Senate bill, $67.86 million is for design-only activities on the ATP project.

Program Issues

Although DOE has decided on the dual track course toward selection of a technology for production of tritium, the program remains controversial. Most of the controversy concerns the choice of technology. Indeed, before the Record of Decision there were some indications that DOE had already decided upon accelerator production of tritium (APT) as the primary choice. Several reasons were behind this decision including a desire to continue operation of the linear accelerator facility at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center (LANSCE) where much of the development work for the APT targets would take place. In addition, concerns about the need to construct a new nuclear reactor probably contributed to the decision. Congressional action (primarily a task force set up by the Speaker -- see below), however, caused DOE to reconsider and to add the existing commercial reactor option when the Record of Decision was issued.

Target Date. Although current policy is set to meet the 2005 target for a new tritium production source, there are those who believe that completion of that source can be extended well beyond that deadline. If and when START II is ratified by Russia, the need for new tritium production would be delayed to 2011 because the number of strategic warheads allowed in the stockpile would be much lower than the START I limits defining the 2005 target. The START II calls for a stockpile of 3,500 nuclear strategic warheads.

Many argue that further nuclear weapons reduction beyond the START II limits is possible with the result that additional years would be available to recycle tritium from dismantled warheads because the tritium production schedule included an additional 5-year reserve. Recently a number of nuclear arms control advocates have argued for further reductions to around 1,000 deployed warheads. In that case, the need for new tritium production could be pushed back to the year 2035 by the recycling of the tritium from the deactivated warheads. In December 1996 retired Air Force General George Lee Butler, former Commander in Chief of Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC), together with retired General Andrew J. Goodpaster and 60 other generals and admirals around the world, called for additional reduction in nuclear arms and the phased elimination, with verification, of all nuclear arms. The Administration, however, has rejected further unilateral cuts in U.S. nuclear weapons until the Russians have ratified START II. At this time, there have been no official proposals, either from Congress or the Administration, for additional nuclear weapons stockpile reductions. But more calls for nuclear arms reduction, possibly leading to elimination of nuclear arsenals, are likely in the next few years.

Interim Sources - Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF). If there is no change in the current target date, however, then the question of an interim source becomes important. One option is to upgrade existing DOE reactors. Of the non-operational DOE reactors, only one is capable of producing a significant amount of tritium, the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) at the Hanford Site. DOE is now considering whether the FFTF could serve as an interim source. According to DOE officials, the added cost to keep the FFTF as a tritium source option would be about $7 million over the next 2 years compared with $88 million already budgeted for FFTF operations over that period. Extensive development work and testing would be needed before the FFTF could be producing the necessary quantities of tritium.

A recent study by JASON (a non-government, scientific group advising DOE on Defense matters) expressed "reasonable confidence" that the FFTF could be made to produce about 1.5 kg of tritium per year, nearly 75% of the projected 2 kg requirement. The JASON group did express concern about whether the FFTF could be restarted to meet the 2005 target date due to significant testing requirements and "formidable bureaucratic barriers" such as regulatory requirements. They did not, however, identify any major technical barriers. Recently a private company offered to assume operation of the FFTF and make the necessary modifications for the reactor to produce tritium. The company proposed to lease the reactor and contract with DOE to provide tritium for 10 years starting in 2000. When a long-term source is in place, that company would convert the FFTF to medical isotope production.

A consulting firm hired by DOE recently completed an examination of the use of the FFTF as an interim source. The study found that the reactor would be a "cost- effective backup" for tritium production, and concluded that under certain conditions, the FFTF could be cheaper than the other two options even over a more extended period. Based on these studies, DOE decided to add the FFTF as an option for am interim tritium production source with conversion to the production of medical isotopes at the end of that period. Right now, however, the production of medical isotopes from the FFTF could not compete with lower cost sources. The DOE action could provide more time for it to develop one of its two long term options, the accelerator production of tritium facility or the commercial reactor.

Nevertheless, there is still considerable opposition to using the FFTF. In particular, the Governor of Oregon has joined other Northwest political leaders and environmental activists in opposing the restart of FFTF. Those groups argue that DOE should not be spending money to restart the reactor when there is so much cleanup work to be done at the Hanford site. Some groups claim that DOE is diverting money from the cleanup budget for the FFTF. Those opponents also argue that using the reactor for the weapons program would be illegal and not consistent with the current cleanup mission of Hanford. There is also likely to be opposition from those who are concerned that restarting the FFTF would divert resources from the Savannah River Site, where the accelerator production of tritium facility would be located. They contend that the FFTF will not be able to supply the necessary tritium.

In its decision to retain the FFTF option, DOE stated that it would not divert funds from cleanup. DOE points out that a reprogramming request it will make to shift $31.1 million in FY1997 from Environmental Management to Nuclear Energy to continue the FFTF in a standby mode is being restored in the FY1998 budget request. Some argue that using the FFTF as an interim source could permit construction of the accelerator facility at a slower pace and at lower annual appropriations. Whether this reduction is possible depends on the course of inflation over that period.

Recently, a memorandum prepared by the DOE defense programs in July 1996 was released by one of the opposition groups that expresses considerable concern about the FFTF option. The memo states that extensive testing and modification may be necessary to ensure that reactor safety is maintained if it becomes a tritium production source. The crux of that argument is that several of the fuel assemblies will have to be replaced by target rods containing lithium in order to produce the quantity of tritium desired. According to the memo, if more that a small percentage of those fuel assemblies are replaced, about 15%, without major modification of the fuel assembly design, the reactor could lose much of its inherent stability. A new fuel design including new fuel fabrication facilities would take several years and at a substantial cost. Given the current regulatory climate, therefore, the memo argues that the FFTF might not be a feasible tritium production option, particularly in the time frame sought by DOE. Some of the opponents have interpreted the memo as claiming that without those changes, the reactor could become dangerously unstable, leading to the possibility of a significant release of radioactivity. DOE counters that that interpretation is incorrect and the worse case would be core overheating causing it to disassemble. No radioactive leakage would occur, although the reactor would be ruined.

DOE apparently decided that the risk raised by the memo was not sufficient to discard the FFTF option. DOE, however, is taking those concerns into account before a decision to proceed further is made. At this time, DOE has set a deadline of December 1998 for a decision on whether to keep the FFTF open as an interim source.

Another interim option is the possibility of purchasing tritium from a foreign source. Tritium has been produced in reactors for defense purposes in several countries such as Russia, Britain, and France. Tritium has also been produced as a by-product in Canada although Canada prohibits its use in weapons. There are no treaty prohibitions, however, to foreign purchases. Recently, Richard Garwin, when accepting the prestigious Fermi award from DOE, argued in favor of purchase from Russia. He asserted that Russia has stated it can supply tritium for about $20,000 per gram. This price compares to an estimated $25,000 per gram for fuel costs used to produce the tritium when supplied by a nuclear reactor that is also generating electricity for sale. Garwin argued that DOE could use a reactor as a backup in the event the supply from Russia was shut off. The purchase of tritium from foreign sources was considered by DOE, but rejected largely because of concerns it could place U.S. national security at risk. In view of the changed target date from 2011 to 2005, however, DOE may reconsider this option as a temporary measure, particularly if the FFTF option does not develop for whatever reason.

Long Term Sources. Of the two tracks being considered by DOE for a long term source, the commercial reactor option -- either purchase of radiation service or purchase of a commercial reactor -- probably involves the least technical risk, although the APT concept also appears relatively straightforward. Presently there are 110 nuclear power plants operating in the United States. These reactors could be used to produce tritium by placing lithium-6 target rods within the reactor core which will require the redesign and evaluation of the neutron absorbing control rods. The impact on electricity power production should be minimal. This procedure is the object of tests scheduled by DOE for FY1998. The tritium production target rods can be removed at the same time the reactor is refueled, about every 18 months. The quantity of irradiation services can be scaled according to the amount of tritium needed for the stockpile. Target rod development thus far has demonstrated feasibility, but development and qualification have not yet been completed. In addition, additional facilities would be required to extract the tritium for use in weapons.

A significant potential concern with this option is that a commercial reactor would not be under the control of DOE. It is possible that future changes in the electric utility industry could cause the utility owner/operator to decide that the reactor was no longer economic to operate. If DOE had to take over the reactor at that point and could not obtain a "subsidy" from the sale of electric power from the plant, its operational costs might suddenly grow substantially. In addition, there are potential regulatory and environmental problems that could arise in the option. These possible issues are discussed in more detail below.

The purchase of a commercial nuclear reactor by DOE would eliminate potential uncertainties connected with the utility owner/operator. Most of the existing commercial nuclear reactors, however, are in the middle or tail-end of their designed life-cycle. The conversion of a commercial reactor for the 40 years of tritium production may require substantial investment in upgrading the facility as well as insuring the safety of the reactor. The purchase of a partially completed reactor might be preferred, depending on the cost for completion, although the reactor may not be in a suitable location. The cost of decommissioning the reactor at the end of the tritium production life-cycle is highly uncertain, but is likely to be very high based on current site cleanup experiences. Finally, there would be regulatory, environmental and non-proliferation issues as discussed below.

Construction of a new reactor has also been considered by DOE but was not part of the Record of Decision. If purchase of radiation services does not prove to be feasible, however, DOE may once again consider this option. There are several reactor designs which DOE could consider. The reactor for producing tritium would be fueled with enriched uranium rods similar to those used in existing light water reactors (LWR). The small light water reactor, in the range of 600 MW, might face fewer regulatory delays than other candidates because it is a proven technology although it has not been used in tritium production. A large light water reactor, which would produce electricity in the range of 1,100 to 1,300 MW, would have a production rate well above that required by the DOE stockpile management program and, therefore, could compensate for unexpected down time.

Another possibility is the heavy water reactor which is the technology previously used for tritium production at the Savannah River Site (SRS). Such a reactor may cost more than an equivalent LWR and be subjected to more regulatory uncertainty. In this connection, the K Reactor at SRS may be a candidate. It is the only DOE reactor specifically designed to produce nuclear materials capable of returning to operation. The K Reactor is presently in "cold standby" after it was shut down in 1988 for safety upgrades. The reactor, however, was designed in the 1940s, and, according to the DOE PEIS, it may not be possible to upgrade it to the level needed to meet the nation's long term tritium requirements regardless of the level of investment made in the facility.

The construction of a multipurpose reactor which could be used to produce tritium, generate electricity, and burn off excess weapons grade plutonium has been recommended by some including most of the Members of the Speaker's task force headed by Representative Graham (see below). The Task Force report recommended that the missions of tritium production and plutonium disposal be combined in the multipurpose reactor. Presently these functions are managed by two different offices within DOE, the DOE Tritium Production Office and the Fissile Materials Control and Disposition Office. The Task Force argued that combining the two missions would result in the highest assurance of a reliable tritium source and lowest cost to the taxpayer. One Member of the task force, however, argued that the decision of tritium production technology, whether it be a reactor or accelerator or multipurpose reactor, should be based on the best science and technology available, and that such an evaluation was not yet at the stage where a decision could be made.

While there is private sector interest in building a multipurpose reactor, there are uncertainties regarding future electricity markets, regulatory actions, and environmental concerns which could delay this reactor or even cause project cancellation if it is started. A deregulated electric utility environment may make a new nuclear reactor uncompetitive even if it is partially subsidized by federal funds for tritium production.

The second option in DOE's dual track approach, accelerator production of tritium (APT), is a significant departure from previous approaches. Existing DOE particle accelerators are capable of producing only a small amount of tritium. The research accelerators were designed for pulsed, and not continuous, operation at low power levels (about 800 KW). A production accelerator would be required to deliver a high power proton beam at 100 MW, or more than two orders of magnitude greater. While the APT process has yet to be demonstrated on anything approaching the scale required for the stockpile, research and development is being conducted at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to demonstrate its feasibility. The accelerator facility which is part of the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, is being used for this R& D. In addition, DOE will start preliminary -- Title I -- design of a full scale APT facility in October 1997.

The advantages of APT are that it does not create additional high-level nuclear waste, and that safety concerns are not a major problem since it does not use fissionable material. The quantity of tritium to be produced can be adjusted by the schedule of operation. In addition, the accelerator could be available for scientific experiments and possibly production of medical isotopes since tritium production is not likely to demand all of its time. A major disadvantage with this approach is that the APT requires a substantial amount of electrical power -- about 500 MW -- to produce the high energy proton beam. The proposed accelerator at SRS is approximately 0.7 mile long, and is a part of the APT complex covering approximately 173 acres of land. In its current long term budget outlook for stockpile management (1997-2010), DOE assumes that the ATP option will be selected.

Costs. The estimated cost of these options varies substantially. The DOE has carried out extensive cost analyses and determined a mean value for the discounted life cycle costs (both construction and operating costs over the life of the project and accounting for the cost of money) of several candidate technologies. For the options that involve government purchase or construction of a reactor, the mean value estimates range from $1.4 billion to $6.3 billion including revenues gained from sale of electricity. Purchase of irradiation services from an operating commercial reactor yields the lowest cost estimate of all the options, a mean value for the discounted life cycle cost of $1.2 billion. The same kind of analysis for an APT facility gives a mean value of discounted life cycle cost of $5.1 billion. Of course, the APT facility would not produce any electricity but would require a substantial amount to power the accelerator. The apparent cost advantage of the commercial reactor route is the primary reason for DOE's choice of that option as part of the dual track approach.

The cost estimates are highly variable. For each candidate, cost can range from 30% below the mean to as much as 55% above. Important factors contributing to this large uncertainty are the location of the facility, the amount of tritium production, the cost/revenue of electricity, construction, operation, maintenance, and decommissioning the site at the end of the production cycle.

The Congressional Budget Office recently issued estimates of the two options. According to CBO, the total cost of the reactor option, including seven years operation at $50 million per year, would be $2.35 billion over the period 1997-2010. If DOE were to purchase a reactor instead of leasing radiation services from a commercial reactor, the cost would increase by about $1.9 billion although part of that would be offset by sale of electricity from the reactor. For the APT option, CBO estimates the total cost at $6.72 billion over the same 14-year period. Operations costs are estimated to be $180 million per year while actual construction cost of the APT is estimated at $5.4 billion.

Currently, DOE plans to spend about $600 million from 1996 to 2005 to develop the reactor option. About $80 million will have been spent prior to the 1998 decision date. DOE will proceed with its current plans for the reactor option to 2003 whether or not it chooses this option. If DOE selects the reactor option, it will continue to work on the APT option through 2002 in order to complete technology demonstration and engineering design. Those steps are estimated by CBO to cost about $1.4 billion. At that point, DOE estimates that the APT facility could be completed in 5 to 6 years.

Recently, an effort led by Los Alamos National Laboratory reported a plan to reduce the cost of the APT facility by using a modular design. This approach would result in a first stage costing about $3.3 billion compared to the DOE estimate for the entire machine of $4.1 billion. The first stage, however, would only be capable of producing enough tritium for a stockpile of 2,500 warheads, below the START II limit and well below the START I stockpile. Because of the modular design, however, this modular approach would permit additions to the accelerator of any size once the basic unit is completed. In this way, the decision on just how much tritium will eventually be needed can be delayed with the possibility that the current target will be too high. While DOE has expressed interest in this approach, it has not committed to a modular design. One concern is that the eventual cost of such an approach may be significantly higher than building the entire unit at once if the current design production level is needed.

In a study carried out for DOE by two South Carolina universities, it was reported that the proposed APT facility could bring in substantial revenue by producing medical isotopes. The study estimated an annual income of between $50 million to $400 million in this manner. It is possible, the study found, that the facility could become a net revenue producer. While expressing gratification at the studies results, the DOE sponsor felt the revenue estimates may be excessive. Nevertheless, it ordered the APT design time to consider incorporation of medical isotope production in the facility design.

Environmental and Safety Concerns. Important factors influencing the decision about tritium production technology are the potential impact of the candidate technologies on the environment, and the safety level of the production facility. Common to all the reactor options are concerns about reactor safety and the generation and management of radioactive waste. Since the early 1970s, no new commercial nuclear reactor has been built in the United States. The major reasons have been the high cost of nuclear power compared to other electric power generation technologies, and the slowdown in the growth of electric power demand which left substantial excess generation capacity. In addition, there have been concerns about reactor safety. While the U.S. nuclear power industry has a generally excellent safety record, the memory of Three Mile Island and foreign accidents has contributed to the resistance by the public toward more nuclear power plants.

Finally, there are environmental concerns about the creation and disposal of high level nuclear waste. The additional waste produced by a production reactor would be quite small in comparison to the waste already produced. Nevertheless, the difficulty in disposing of such waste remains and has contributed to the resistance toward construction of additional nuclear reactors. The public is concerned about the storage of nuclear wastes, and the high cost of cleanup upon the decommissioning of the reactor in case of an accident. The APT is not a reactor and would not generate any spent fuel nor would there be any significant safety concerns. Because nuclear reactions would take place in the APT facility, some radioactive waste material would result. It would be a small amount, however, and all of it would be low level waste (waste whose radioactive byproducts emerge at low energy and are far less dangerous than byproducts from nuclear reactors). The principal environmental consequence of an APT facility would likely be the large amount of electric power which would be required. This power would very likely be generated by the burning of fossil fuels which would add to air quality concerns and produce additional carbon dioxide.

Public concern about the reactor option was recently expressed at the public meeting held by the NRC prior to approving the Watts Bar test. At that meeting, many of those opposed were concerned about the potential release of radioactive material in the Tennessee River, and about how the insertion of the lithium rods would affect the reactor's reliability.

Regulatory and Proliferation Concerns. Regulation is also an issue for the choice of production technology since any reactor option would be subjected to the current nuclear power plant regulatory process. Presently commercial reactors are licensed and regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The DOE assumes that an existing facility used to make tritium for the department would remain licensed by the NRC, with license amendments for insertion of tritium target rods. Furthermore, even more extensive NRC licensing and regulatory process and structure would be employed for the construction and operation of new reactors. In June 1996, DOE and NRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) concerning DOE's future use of NRC-regulated facilities to produce tritium for nuclear weapons. The agreement established a basis for NRC review and consultation on DOE's possible purchase of commercial light water reactors or of irradiation services from commercial reactors. This MOU will smooth out some of the obstacles to the licensing of commercial reactors for tritium production. For the APT option, the accelerator would not have to undergo the same safety and licensing process as a reactor.

Recently, the NRC concluded a review of a technical report on the reactor option issued by DOE last year. As a result of the review, the NRC announced that any utility seeking to participate in the program will have to submit a license amendment, specific to plant or plants in question, that addresses all of the issues about tritium production. In addition, the NRC stated that it would review possible accidents that could arise from tritium production as to their "consequences of off-site radiological releases" of tritium, although it did not believe such consequences would be significant. For the Watts Bar test to demonstrate the feasibility of producing tritium in a commercial reactor, the NRC had to give its approval to insert the lithium rods because that constituted a modification of the original reactor licensed by the Commission.

Another issue which has been raised is the possible nuclear proliferation consequences of using civilian facilities for weapons tritium production. The separation of civilian and military use of atomic energy is a long-standing U.S. policy, partly to protect against unauthorized use of weapons grade nuclear materials. Since tritium is not considered to be special nuclear material, however, tritium production would not come under the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act (AEA). A possible statutory impediment is section 57e of the AEA, which forbids special nuclear material produced in a commercial reactor from being used "for nuclear explosive purposes." That section was intended to prevent plutonium created in commercial nuclear power plants during normal operation from being separated for weapons use. DOE officials have raised the possibility that section 57e could be interpreted as prohibiting plutonium created in commercial reactors from being used to produce tritium for nuclear weapons. Production of substantial quantities of tritium in a commercial nuclear reactor likely would call attention to the appropriate uses of commercial nuclear reactors. Indeed, this possibility was cited by DOE as one of the reasons it selected the APT concept as a candidate tritium source.

On March 29, 1996 the environmental group Greenpeace issued a statement opposing DOE's proposal to use commercial reactors for tritium production or plutonium disposition. Greenpeace contended that DOE's use of a commercial reactor to produce tritium or to burn plutonium would effectively force consumers to support nuclear programs opposed by many U.S. citizens. This opposition is likely to intensify as DOE's decision on a commercial reactor for a tritium source nears, although according to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) the production of tritium in a commercial reactor is not a proliferation issue. There is concern, however, that the use of civilian nuclear reactors for the production of weapons material may set a bad precedent. Again, an APT facility would not have this difficulty since the accelerator would be a dedicated defense facility in its tritium production mode. If also used for scientific research, however, it is possible that such concerns would be raised.

This concern about the separation of civilian and military uses of atomic energy also received the most attention at the NRC public meeting on the Watts Bar test. Opponents argued that once Watts Bar is operating with the lithium rods and is producing tritium for later extraction, it becomes a "bomb plant." Although DOE officials pointed out that tritium has other purposes besides its use in nuclear weapons, is not a special nuclear material, and is not covered by the Atomic Energy Act, opponents pointed out that the sole purpose of the test is to demonstrate the feasibility of producing tritium for nuclear weapons. Therefore, while the letter of the law is met, the spirit of the law is not according to these opponents.

Schedule. The first step in the process is the selection of a long term tritium source option. Currently, DOE has scheduled this decision for late in 1998. There are those who believe, however, that DOE needs to make this decision sooner if the production targets are to be met. In the National Defense Authorization Act for FY1997, P.L.104-201, Congress directed DOE to make the final decision on choice of technologies to be used for long term tritium production no later than April 15, 1997. In recent confirmation hearings, Secretary of Energy-designate Pena was asked by some Members whether DOE intended to meet this deadline, and suggested that DOE would be violating the law if it did not. At this time, DOE has not responded to this assertion. It is possible, however, that the large increase in DOE's request for funds for FY1998 compared to the FY1997 appropriation for tritium production is driven in part by this congressional pressure. In the Senate's version of the FY1998 National Defense Authorization Act, DOE is required to make its decision by June 30, 1998.

As for meeting the production target date, DOE argues that all of the options presented here have high probability of meeting the 2011 date originally set by START II weapon levels. Some options, however, could not meet a 2005 deadline. In particular, an APT facility would not be available until 2007. The quickest way to secure a long term source appears to be purchase of irradiation services from the civilian nuclear power industry, in which case the production of tritium could occur as early as 2004. The purchase of an existing or partially completed commercial reactor could result in tritium production by the year 2005 after the target development and construction of a tritium extraction facility. It is likely that a new reactor, including the multi-purpose option, would not be ready by 2005. Except for the existing reactor option (including purchase of radiation services), an interim source would be needed to meet the 2005 deadline.

These schedule assessments are based on the assumption that everything would go smoothly, including construction in the case of new reactor or accelerator, contract negotiation in the case of the existing commercial reactor, regulatory review and licensing, and environmental impacts analysis. There are those who feel that DOE is not proceeding quickly enough to meet the shorter deadline. In particular they are concerned that DOE has not adequately accounted for the environmental, regulatory, proliferation and costs uncertainties as discussed above. The Congress expressed this concern in the Conference Report of the FY1997 Defense Authorization Bill. A report from the House National Security Committee also stated that DOE is not moving fast enough to make the decisions needed to ensure a tritium production capability when needed. In particular it criticized DOE for not providing adequate funding for the program. The DOE, however, feels that its stockpile management program will be able to meet its objectives.


H.R. 1119 (Spence)
National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1998 and 1999. Authorizes appropriations for FY1998 and FY1999 for military activities of the Department of Defense, to prescribe military personnel strengths for FY1998 and FY1999, and for other purposes. Introduced March 19, 1997; referred to Committee on National Security. Reported, as amended, June 16, 1997 (H.Rept. 105-132). Passed House, amended, by a vote of 304-120, June 25, 1997.

H.R. 2203 (McDade)
Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, 1998. A bill making appropriations for energy ans water development for the fiscal year ending September 30, 1998, and for other purposes. House Committee on Appropriations reported an original measure, July 21, 1997 (H.Rept. 105-190). Passed House, amended, by a vote of 418-7, July 25, 1997.

S. 936 (Thurmond)
National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1998. Authorizes appropriations for FY1998 for military activities of the Department of Defense, for military construction, and for defense activities of the Department of Energy, to prescribe personnel strengths for FY1998 for the Armed Forces, and for other purposes. Introduced June 18, 1997; referred to Committee on Armed Services. Reported, as amended, June 18, 1997 (S.Rept. 105-29). Passed Senate, amended, by voice vote, July 11, 1997.

S. 1004 (Domenici)
Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, 1998. An bill making appropriations for energy and water development for the fiscal year ending September 30, 1998, and for other purposes. Senate Committee on Appropriations reported and original measure; July 10, 1997 (S.Rept. 105-44). Passed Senate, amended, by a vote of 99-0, July 16, 1997.


U.S. Congress. Committee on Commerce. Subcommittee on Energy and Power. Oversight Hearing on Tritium Production. November 15, 1995. Serial No. 104-47.

U.S. Department of Energy. Office of Reconfiguration. Technical reference report for tritium production supply and recycling. October 1995.

-----Final programmatic environmental impact statement for tritium supply and recycling. Executive Summary. October 1995.

-----Record of Decision. Tritium supply and recycling programmatic environmental impact statement. Federal Register, v. 60. No. 238: December 12, 1995.

The MITRE Corporation. JASON Program Office. Accelerator production of tritium; 1995 review. June 27, 1995.

CBO Papers. Preserving the Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Under a Comprehensive Test Ban. Congressional Budget Office. May 1997.

CRS Reports

CRS Report 92-827. Tritium production alternatives; Transcript of a CRS seminar, by Jonathan Medalia.

CRS Report 96-11. Nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship: Alternatives for Congress, by Jonathan Medalia.

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