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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 13, February - March 1997

US Department of Energy Press Releases:
National Ignition Facility; Tritium Programme

National Ignition Facility

'Construction Approved for National Ignition Facility: World's Largest Laser to Support Nuclear Test Ban, Reinforce US Scientific Leadership,' Department of Energy (DOE) Press Release, R-97-013, 11 March 1997

Full text

"The Department of Energy (DOE) has approved the start of construction of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which will house the world's largest laser and create conditions similar to the center of the sun and other stars. The facility will play a vital role in DOE's science-based stockpile stewardship and management program to maintain the US nuclear weapons stockpile without underground testing. Groundbreaking for the $1.2 billion, 192-beam stadium-sized laser center is anticipated within the next few weeks.

'The National Ignition Facility will help the United States meet the conditions of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and reduce the global nuclear danger. The country will also benefit from cutting edge science in astrophysics and fusion energy,' said Charles B. Curtis, Acting Secretary of Energy.

Bruce Tarter, director of the laboratory based in Livermore, CA, said 'The National Ignition Facility will make a fundamental contribution to our technical understanding of aging nuclear weapons. The hundreds of men and women who have carried us to this point are now ready to convert this critical scientific effort into concrete, steel and lasers.'

The National Ignition Facility will direct the energy of 192 laser beams onto a small (one millimeter) capsule containing isotopes of hydrogen to induce a fusion reaction that will produce more energy than comes from the laser beam, simulating reactions in the explosion of thermonuclear warheads. Temperatures in the fuel capsule at NIF could reach 100 million degrees with pressures 100 billion times that of the earth's atmosphere. When used with other data and advanced computational capability, results from this work will allow assessment, without testing, of the reliability of the nation's nuclear stockpile as it ages.

Upon completion NIF will be a multipurpose research facility with defense and civilian applications such as fusion energy research and astrophysics. NIF will have 50 times the energy of any laser now in existence and will produce, for the first time in a laboratory setting, conditions of matter close to those that occur in the center of the sun and other stars.

President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in September 1996 and has pledged to pursue experimental means of maintaining confidence in the reliability and performance of nuclear weapons. Livermore was selected as the NIF site in December 1996, following the November release of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program, DOE's comprehensive plan for maintaining the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear stockpile through science. Funding to begin site preparation for NIF was included in the FY 97 congressional appropriation. Full construction funding is requested in the FY 98 congressional budget request.

Construction of NIF will create almost 900 long-term jobs in the San Francisco Bay area where Lawrence Livermore lab is located. About 6,000 jobs nationally and 3,000 locally will be created during the peak construction period between 1998 and 2000."

Tritium Programme

'Another Step Toward Presidential Goal: New Tritium Supply by 2005,' Department of Energy Press Release, R-97-006, 7 February 1997


"The Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Watts Bar Nuclear Plant 1 has been selected by the Department of Energy's (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to conduct a one-time confirmatory test of components that could be used in the production of tritium.

DOE announced the test as part of DOE's 'dual track' strategy to develop a new assured source of tritium to support national security requirements. The tritium program is a key element in DOE's Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program to ensure the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile without testing. A new tritium production source is expected to be selected by 1998.

'This test will provide confidence to the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC], which regulates these plants, that making tritium in a light water reactor is technically straightforward and safe,' said Charles Curtis, Acting Secretary of Energy. 'It will be a significant step forward in support of DOE's obligation to provide an assured cost-effective source of tritium when required.'

Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen that is required by all US nuclear weapons in order to function as designed. Because it decays at a rate of about 5 percent per year, it must be replaced periodically. The US has not produced tritium since 1988, when the last tritium production reactor was shut down at DOE's Savannah River Site. By Presidential Directive, the department must have a new supply of tritium available by 2005. ...

The Watts Bar test involves placement of a few specially designed twelve-foot 'target' rods into four of the nearly two hundred regular fuel assemblies in the plant's reactor core. These targets, which contain no uranium or plutonium, are designed to replace a standard component of reactor fuel assemblies. During the plant's normal 18-month operating cycle, the rods will produce and retain small amounts of tritium. Following the test, the rods will be shipped by a DOE carrier to PNNL for disassembly and examination. The test will produce about an ounce of tritium, none of which will be used in nuclear weapons.

Previously, DOE has tested smaller rod segments in one of its test reactors with excellent results. The Watts Bar test is intended to confirm those results using rods of the same length as those now typically used in commercial reactors. The test program will not change the basic operation of Watts Bar nor will it invalidate any of the rigorous reviews conducted during the plant licensing process. Watts Bar 1 will continue to operate and maintain equipment to high standards, as well as conduct appropriate plant testing and monitoring activities. ...

The test program and rod shipments will be conducted in full compliance with the strict federal regulations applicable to nuclear power plants. A report documenting the design of the rods to be used in the test and associated safety analyses has recently been completed by PNNL for DOE and is now being reviewed by the NRC.

'The reliable and safe performance of these rods have been proven in previous tests,' explained Dr. Jerry Ethridge, PNNL's Battelle Project Manager. 'The Watts Bar test will allow us to confirm the outstanding prior results in a large reactor and demonstrate that the department's tritium production goals can be met easily using commercial reactors, without impacting their safe and efficient operation.'"

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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