Military Seeks to Boost Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Tritium Output

Jan. 19, 2022

Jan. 14—The military is seeking to boost the production of a key component of America's nuclear arsenal at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant despite criticism the move violates international nuclear arms agreements.

The Tennessee Valley Authority will outline its plans to federal regulators next week about how it will increase production of tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen needed to turn an atomic bomb into a far more explosive hydrogen bomb.

TVA says such work is part of its national defense mandate spelled out in its charter and has been safely conducted at Watts Bar for nearly two decades to help replenish tritium supplies that decay over time.

But anti-nuclear activists argue that using a civilian nuclear power plant to help make nuclear bomb materials risks putting nuclear weapons into the hands of more countries and terrorists and will put more radioactive tritium into the Tennessee River and Chattanooga's drinking water.

"Using commercial nuclear reactors to produce nuclear weapons materials is a violation of the international nonproliferation agreements," said Tom Clements, executive director of the Savannah River Site Watch, although the government has gone to some lengths to use materials that officials say are not obligated by such agreements.

Clements' group has opposed efforts to maintain and boost bomb materials in South Carolina and Tennessee. "Increasing the amount of such production by TVA will only make it worse. The production of tritium at Watts Bar is very questionable, and instead of expanding production, it should be curtailed."

Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Peace Alliance, also worries that increased tritium production at Watts Bar will boost the amount of the radioactive isotopes that leak into the Tennessee River and will heighten health risks for those down river of the Spring City, Tennessee, nuclear plant, including Chattanooga and Cleveland.

"Tritium as an isotope of hydrogen will bond with oxygen and create radioactive water," Hutchison said by phone. "Even though the river is big, there is health risk if there is more radioactive water in the river that supplies the drinking water for Chattanooga and other cities."

TVA and its nuclear regulator, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, monitor radioactive levels in the water and land around Watts Bar, and the amount of tritium and other radioactive materials remain within the commission's acceptable levels. But before TVA may boost its tritium production by irradiating more tritium-producing burnable absorber rods at Watts Bar, the federal utility must obtain commission permission for an amendment to its nuclear license.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has scheduled a teleconference meeting to hear about TVA's latest plans to produce more tritium production at Watts Bar at 9 a.m. next Wednesday.

Military mission

TVA is responding to a request from the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency of the U.S. Department of Energy that is responsible for maintaining America's nuclear stockpile.

"TVA has always had a mission to support our nation's defense," TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said in an emailed statement. "TVA power helped energize the Manhattan Project and aluminum production for World War II and today provides reliable energy to Oak Ridge National Lab, the Y-12 complex and numerous military installations in our region. This mission also extends to Watts Bar's irradiation of tritium producing burnable absorber rods to support the U.S. Department of Energy's need for tritium."

TVA began producing tritium for the military in 2003 at Watts Bar Unit 1, and Watts Bar Unit 2 joined the process in 2020. The rods are inserted into each reactor during each fuel cycle and removed during routine refueling outages.

After TVA irradiates the rods, the NNSA harvests the resulting tritium at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina, where the agency puts the gas into reservoirs that are sent to the security administration's Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, to be installed in nuclear weapons.

Although the process slightly reduces the amount of electricity generated by Watts Bar when the rods are added to the reactor core, TVA is reimbursed by the security administration for all expenses and lost power associated with the tritium production.

TVA loads Watts Bar with 1,792 rods during each of its refueling cycles, and the nuclear security agency wants to raise the number of rods in each cycle to more than 2,400.

Hopson said even with the proposed increase, the higher total still remains under the 2,500 rods per unit or 5,000 rods per site limit that was analyzed as part of a 2016 environmental study.

Hopson said that study "determined that there were no significant environmental impacts at that level and TVA continues to meet all federal and state requirements related to this activity."

Need for site

The National Nuclear Security Administration turned to TVA to begin making the tritium after the U.S. Department of Energy deemed that its last tritium-producing nuclear reactor at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina was unsafe and shut that reactor down. At the time, the military had sufficient reserve supplies of tritium, especially since arms reduction agreements cut the number of nuclear weapons maintained by the United States. But the radioactive isotope decays at an annual rate of 5.5%, or a half-life of 12.5 years.

The Clinton administration in the late 1990s turned to TVA as a federally owned corporation to produce the tritium.

TVA initially proposed selling the unfinished Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant in Hollywood, Alabama, to the military to allow the nuclear bomb material to be made separately from a civilian nuclear power plant. TVA began building the Bellefonte plant in the early 1970s, but the twin-reactor facility was never completed.

Instead of the tritium production at Bellefonte, the security agency asked TVA to make the tritium at its newest nuclear plant, the twin-reactor Watts Bar plant in Rhea County, with the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant near Soddy-Daisy as a backup for the tritium production.

By making some changes in plant equipment and operations, the TVA nuclear plants can be used to irradiate tritium-producing burnable absorber rods.

Critics argue that such an approach, although cheaper than building another Department of Energy reactor to make the tritium, violates the international standard of not using commercial nuclear power plants for nuclear weapons production. The "no dual use" policy grew out of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1950s Atoms for Peace program, which funded much of the research and development of nuclear power, including work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

But before launching the tritium program at Watts Bar, the Department of Energy cleared the way with an interagency review that found that "tritium is not a fissionable material capable of sustaining a nuclear reaction. Thus, it is not classified as a special nuclear material and is therefore not subject to the prohibition in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954."

Any change in the number of rods in the Watts Bar reactors must be reviewed and approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and will require nuclear engineering analyses and technical reviews. Since TVA began irradiating the rods in 2003, there have been five license amendments to boost tritium production, Hopson said.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 423-757-6340


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