Environment News Service

AmeriScan: May 26, 1999


Many, but not all, of the technical issues involved in the use of a commercial nuclear power plant for production of tritium have been addressed in a new Department of Energy (DOE) technical report, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said today. Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that is essential for the effective functioning of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. The United States has not produced tritium since 1988. Because tritium decays at the rate of about five percent per year, DOE says the U.S. will need new production by 2005. Current tritium needs are being met by recycling tritium from dismantled nuclear weapons. The DOE's "Tritium Production Core Topical Report," was submitted to NRC last July. It evaluates the effect of tritium production on the technical areas NRC reviews during the nuclear power plant licensing process. Because of the variety of plant designs in the U.S. - and since the DOE report did not include plant-specific analyses - 17 areas will need to be analyzed further in a plant-specific license amendment request by any licensee seeking to produce tritium in a commercial plant. These issues include such matters as reactor vessel integrity, control room habitability, spent fuel storage, and the spent fuel pool cooling system. In December the DOE chose the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar and Sequoyah plants in Tennessee for its commercial light water reactor tritium production program. NRC anticipates license amendment requests for that purpose from TVA next year. Because of the importance of this program to U.S. national security, the Commission will assign high priority to the requests. It will allow the opportunity for a public hearing. NRC plans to hold public meetings in the vicinity of each plant before tritium production can begin. The full text of the unclassified portion of the report will be posted online at: http://www.nrc.gov/OPA

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