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SRS tritium program will need new facilities, added funding

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Savannah River Site’s tritium program will require more funding and newer facilities to fulfill the changing needs of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, according to a new report to Congress.

Savannah River Site's tritium program, which plays a lead role in maintaining all U.S. nuclear warheads, is slowly being upgraded, consolidated and modernized.  SPECIAL
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Savannah River Site's tritium program, which plays a lead role in maintaining all U.S. nuclear warheads, is slowly being upgraded, consolidated and modernized.

“Because the current inventory is larger than required, only a small amount is produced today,” the National Nuclear Security Administration said in its 2014 stockpile management plan. “However, to meet future tritium inventory requirements, the rate of production must be increased.”

The program, which employs about 450 workers, is one of the last nuclear weapons functions still based at SRS.

Tritium, a gas that increases explosive power, has a half-life of about 12½ years. When tritium “reservoirs” in warheads require recharging, the stainless steel components are shipped to SRS, where recycled and newly extracted tritium is loaded into the containers. The reservoirs are then reinstalled in nuclear weapons deployed around the globe.

In its report, the NNSA noted that the fiscal 2014 budget request for weapons activities reflects a 7.6 percent increase over 2013, despite cuts in many other programs. It is the fourth consecutive increase in such spending, resulting in a 28 percent jump since the fiscal 2010 budget.

Some tritium facilities at SRS are in poor condition, the report said.

“The 53-year-old, mission-critical H-Area Old Manufacturing Facility has exceeded its expected useful life and is increasingly inefficient to maintain and operate,” the report said. “About one-third of the facility is no longer used, and it consumes the most energy of any SRS facility.”

Under a long-term program known as Tritium Response Infrastructure Modifications, the SRS facilities are gradually being consolidated and improved. All the H-Area facility’s operations would move to newer buildings, the report said, noting that support and funding are expected to be available.

The goal for completion of all TRIM activities is 2023.

Major actions already taken or underway include moving a tritium-related helium recovery project to a new building, shifting a testing program to a new building and planning for the eventual shutdown and decommissioning of Cold War-era facilities.

Angie French, an NNSA spokeswoman at the site, said the efforts are expected to save money through a 43 percent reduction in energy use and a 12 percent reduction in annual costs, with other savings realized from deferred maintenance and the reduction of the amount of space occupied by the tritium program.

In addition to servicing the warhead reservoirs, workers at Savannah River Site also conduct performance tests on gas transfer systems randomly selected from the active stockpile to ensure performance without the need for nuclear testing.

In these critical tests, a valve fires to open a hole in the reservoir fill stem, and workers must verify that the fill gas is delivered.

The reservoirs are also exposed to extreme forces potentially experienced during use, including thermal changes, vibration, centrifugal force and drop tests. Workers also extract tritium from fuel rods produced at Tennessee Valley Authority reactors and from both surplus and active warhead reservoirs.

Though the number of nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal has fallen in recent decades, the total stockpile still includes about about 4,650, of which an estimated 2,150 are deployed, according to a 2013 report by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


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