The processing of tritium reservoirs for nuclear bombs increased 25 percent at Savannah River Site last year -- a trend authorities say is related in part to the dismantling of surplus weapons.
"The increase is not from new manufacture," said SRS spokesman Jim Giusti, commenting on a report filed by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. "It's mostly from recycling activities associated with dismantlement of old weapons."
Every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal has one thing in common: Its reservoir of tritium -- the hydrogen gas that increases its explosive power -- is maintained and recharged at SRS, which is the nation's sole source of the important material.
Tritium, with a half-life of 12.5 years, must periodically be replenished, or "recharged," at the site's secure facility.
Typically, the Department of Defense removes expiring reservoirs from warheads and ships them -- through Augusta -- to SRS, where they are recharged and then returned.
Surplus tritium from dismantled reservoirs remains at SRS as inventory.
The safety board report said the site processed 1,522 reservoir-equivalent units in 2009, a 25 percent increase over 2008.
Although the report contained little information on the number of nuclear weapons in the nation's current stockpile, the U.S. State Department listed 2,246 such weapons that were "operationally deployed" as of December 2008.
The 2009 figure has not yet been made public, said Jennifer Wagner, the deputy director of public affairs for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation's nuclear-weapons program.
The number of deployed warheads has gradually fallen in recent years -- from 5,273 in 2003 to the 2,246 listed in 2008.
Tom Clements, the Southeast campaign director for Friends of the Earth, noted that "operationally deployed" warheads don't include a larger sum of weapons that are stored or otherwise dormant.
"In my view, counting only deployed weapons is not being honest about the numbers," he said. "But the deployed ones, by any country, are the ones that pose the most threat."
Progress has accelerated in recent years, however, as both the U.S. and Russia continue to reduce their nuclear arsenals.
"In 2009, the U.S. expects to continue to make steady progress in reducing operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to meet the goal of 1,700 to 2,200 by 2012," according to the U.S. State Department's declassified 2009 update on the implementation of the 2002 Moscow Treaty for nuclear-arms reduction.
Last year, the National Nuclear Security Administration placed SRS'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.
Giusti said the facility remains in that status now, due in part to the declining demand for tritium.
"We don't man it full time," Giusti said. "When we get a shipment of irradiated rods we will bring people over to operate the facility to extract the tritium out of it."
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Operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons in U.S. arsenal in December of each year:
2009 not available
SOURCE: U.S. State Department
NOTE: "Operationally deployed" refers to re-entry vehicles on intercontinental and submarine launched ballistic missiles in their launchers, and nuclear arms loaded on heavy bombers or stored at heavy bomber bases.