Tri-Valley CAREs'

U.S. to Produce Bomb Material in Civilian Reactor

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' January 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Consider this scenario. It's just before Christmas. The U.S. is threatening to rain more bombs and destruction on Iraq, alleging it might, perhaps, be using civilian facilities to make nuclear bomb materials. Slow pan to the U.S. Dept. of Energy headquarters, where, on Dec. 22, the Clinton Administration announces that it will produce new radioactive tritium to boost the explosive power of U.S. nuclear weapons in a civilian electrical power reactor - abrogating the 50 year separation of U.S. civilian and military facilities.

This U.S. decision is sure to have far-reaching, negative consequences for all good faith efforts to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons abroad and constrain their continued modernization at home. Specifically, the DOE said it will use the Watts Bar nuclear power plant, operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority and located near Nashville, to produce tritium for the arsenal. Another TVA facility, the Sequoyah plant near Chattanooga, will serve as backup. DOE declined to say how much it expects to spend, but TVA has requested $85 million per year.

Options for producing tritium that were not chosen include building a new accelerator at the Savanna River Site in South Carolina and using the Fast Flux Test Reactor at the Hanford Reservation in Washington. Additionally, TVA had wanted DOE to pay construction costs for its proposed civilian nuclear plant in Alabama. Each of these was also a bad idea, and each carried its own disastrous financial and nonproliferation costs.

Tritium has not been produced in the U.S. since 1988 when DOE shut down its military reactor at Savannah River, due to numerous accidents, leaks and safety problems.

Tritium gas decays at the rate of 5.5% per year. Currently, tritium is "recycled" by taking it out of dismantled bombs and injecting it back into weapons still in the arsenal.

Continued recycling is the obvious solution to the supposed "tritium problem." For, as long as the U.S. continues to down-size its arsenal - even at a very modest pace of 5.5% per year - there will be no "need" to produce more tritium. (A separate disarmament-based argument can be made for discontinuing the use of tritium-boosted bombs completely.) A Congressional requirement to maintain an out-of-date, START I-level arsenal is pushing the demand for tritium.

What can be done now

Congress can rescind its mandate requiring the DOE to provide tritium for a START I-level nuclear force of around 6,000 active warheads. Even using DOE's estimate, if the force requirement was set at START II-levels, there would be no "need" for tritium until 2011 at the earliest. Under a START III scenario of 1,500 deployed nuclear weapons, a new source would not be "needed" before 2020.

In addition, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) has vowed to "reintroduce legislation which would establish a general prohibition against civilian reactors being turned into bomb factories." The Markey-Graham amendment to accomplish that prohibition passed last year in the House but was replaced by a "compromise" in the Senate which merely barred funding in 1999 while Congress studies the question. Thus, DOE needs Congressional approval before implementing its tritium decision.

Inside, you will find an action alert asking you to call your Rep. and urge him or her to co-sponsor the Congressional Resolution to restrain the DOE's "Stockpile Stewardship" program- which Rep. Ed Markey is also reintroducing this session. You can "feed two birds with one phone call" by asking your Rep. to support efforts to ban tritium production in civilian reactors at the same time.

Marylia Kelley Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) 2582 Old First Street Livermore, CA USA 94550 - is our web site, please visit us there!

(925) 443-7148 - is our phone
(925) 443-0177 - is our fax

Working for peace, justice and a healthy environment since 1983, Tri-Valley CAREs has been a member of the nation-wide Alliance for Nuclear Accountability in the U.S. since 1989, and is a co-founding member of the international Abolition 2000 network for the elimination of nuclear weapons.