Agency aims to reduce tritium

The National Nuclear Safety Administration, which oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons program, is taking a series of steps to reduce the amount of tritium produced at Savannah River Site.


The developments include placing the site’s one-of-a-kind Tritium Extraction Facility in “responsive operations mode,” which means it is maintained at peak readiness but used only when needed; and temporarily shutting the facility down for 10 years.

The reductions, detailed in a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board document obtained Thursday by The Augusta Chronicle, suggest the Obama administration’s yet-to-be-announced nuclear policies will include further cuts in the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

“I think this is very significant because the new administration has yet to do what is called an NPR, or 'Nuclear Posture Review’ outlining those policies, and this gives us a look at what’s already going on at the highest levels,” said Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth.

President Obama’s NPR, required by law of each president, is due out in late 2009 or early 2010.

“Further reductions mean they need less tritium and it looks like they are starting to implement actions relating to future disarmament, especially if it would save money,” he said.

The current “responsive operations mode” of the SRS tritium facility is projected to save $10 million per year.

Tritium has a half-life of 12.5 years and must be replenished periodically. Every warhead in the U.S. arsenal, from submarines to land-based silos to strategic bombers, has one thing in common: its reservoir of tritium – the hydrogen gas that increases its explosive power – is maintained and recharged at SRS.

The tritium is produced in the Watts Bar reactor operated in Tennessee by the Tennessee Valley Authority and shipped to the SRS Tritium Extraction Facility for separation and processing.

According to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report, the current “responsive operations” strategy will allow the facility to be used at least once per year for the next four years and will utilize cross-trained personnel from other facilities.

“However, in an effort to further reduce costs, NNSA is considering a temporary shutdown of up to 10 years,” the report said.

Jim Giusti, a DOE spokesman at the site, said the current responsive operations mode enables the facility to meet all its needs.

“Anytime we need to extract tritium from these rods, we will still be able to do it,” he said. “The facility is staffed at all times and it is not deserted; we keep it in safe condition so it can be operated whenever we need it.”

According to the Energy Department, the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile has been reduced by 50 percent since 2001, making it the smallest since the Eisenhower administration. In 2007, then-President Bush directed the stockpile be reduced 15 percent in coming years.

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119




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