Originally created 05/28/98

Battle over tritium production heats up



The two-state battle over a new supply of tritium for the nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons is taking some strange political turns.

The result could be a plus for Savannah River Site, which wants the go-ahead from the Department of Energy to build a linear accelerator.

On Tuesday, a coalition of Tennessee Valley Authority whistle-blowers and anti-nuclear activists blasted plans to make the bomb material at the Bellefonte nuclear plant in Scottsboro, Ala. TVA is looking to get $2 billion in federal dollars to finish the commercial reactor.

"Such a tritium project will serve to provide further waste of taxpayer money to a nuclear utility that has shown itself to be singularly irresponsible with respect to the public safety and the public purse," said consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who spoke at a news conference.

Last week, Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., formed an unusual team to win approval in the House of an amendment to the fiscal 1999 defense bill to ban the use of commercial reactors to produce tritium. The only exception would be a crisis threatening national security.

The conservative Republican and the liberal Democrat likely would disagree on everything else.

Mr. Graham's goal is to secure a new mission for SRS and rebuild some of the 10,000 jobs lost to downsizing in the past four years. The accelerator facility would cost as much as $4.5 billion to build and bring an estimated 650 new permanent jobs and 2,800 temporary construction jobs to SRS.

The TVA proposal is one of two the Department of Energy is considering as a new source for tritium, a hydrogen isotope used in nuclear weapons to enhance explosive capability. The other is the linear accelerator plan.

Mr. Graham was out of town Wednesday during the congressional recess. Aleix Jarvis, the congressman's legislative director, said the signs are hopeful that the Senate will approve a similar amendment, probably in June.

There would normally be little room for agreement by Mr. Graham with the group that came out against tritium production at the Bellefonte plant, but Mr. Jarvis said it's a plus in efforts to ban commercial production of tritium.

"This (amendment) is not a criticism of TVA, it's a criticism of blurring the lines between military and commercial applications of nuclear technology and sending mixed proliferation messages to the world," Mr. Jarvis said.

If the Senate in June agrees with the House, it would all but give SRS a lock on building a linear accelerator to make the bomb material. And Alabama and TVA would be out in the cold.

Previously, the DOE has said a decision will be announced by the end of 1998. Mr. Graham in May added language to the defense bill to delay the tritium decision until late 1999, but that amendment could be deleted from the final bill.

Associated Press reports were used in this article.