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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 33, December 1998 - January 1999

US Nuclear Stockpile Decisions

'Richardson Certifies Safety, Security, Reliability of Nuclear Stockpile Without Nuclear Testing; Makes Two Key National Security Decisions on Tritium and Pit Disassembly,' US Department of Energy (DOE) Press Release PR-98-200, 22 December 1998

"Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson today certified to the President that the nuclear stockpile is safe, secure and reliable without underground nuclear testing and made two key national security decisions related to the stockpile. This is the third year that the Secretaries of Energy and Defense have been required to report to the President about any problems identified in the stockpile that would require a return to underground nuclear testing.

'This annual certification is one of the six safeguards that the President established for our adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. I would not hesitate to tell the President if I thought we needed to return to underground nuclear tests to assure the safety, security or reliability of the stockpile,' Secretary Richardson said. 'But I'm pleased to report that again this year we have certified the safety and security of the nuclear deterrent and that stockpile stewardship, using science based methods rather than underground nuclear tests to determine the safety and reliability of our stockpile, is working. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is important for our nation's security because it will help prevent other nations from developing advanced nuclear weapons.'

To ensure the safety, security and reliability of the stockpile in the future, Secretary Richardson announced that he had selected the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Watts Bar and Sequoyah as the preferred facilities for producing a future supply of tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that is essential for the proper functioning of nuclear weapons and the Savannah River Site as the preferred site for a facility to disassemble plutonium pits from weapons being taken out of the stockpile.


The United States has not produced tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, since 1988. Since tritium decays at the rate of about 5% per year, the United States will need new tritium by 2005 to meet the needs of a START I sized nuclear stockpile or by 2011 to meet the needs of a START II sized stockpile if START II goes into effect.

Secretary Richardson chose the use of TVA reactors for producing tritium over construction of a new linear accelerator at Savannah River, and designated TVA's Watts Bar and Sequoyah reactors as the preferred facilities rather than paying for the completion of TVA's unfinished Bellefonte reactor. Secretary Richardson decided that Hanford's Fast Flux Test Facility should not play any role in producing tritium for the nation's stockpile and he outlined a course for deciding whether it should be restarted to serve future civil research missions.

'Using the Watts Bar and Sequoyah reactors makes sense for our national security. It makes sense because it's a proven technology, it's the best deal for the taxpayers, and it has the flexibility we need to meet our present and future tritium needs,' Richardson said. 'It's the only option that doesn't require a large capital expenditure. If our goal of reaching further arms reduction agreements is reached, we may not need to exercise this option for many years and we will pay for tritium only when it is needed. Finally, TVA is well suited for this work because meeting national security needs is part of its statutory charter and its reactors are government facilities.'

Richardson announced that TVA has agreed to provide irradiation services to meet the Department of Energy's tritium needs under the terms of the Economy Act. The Economy Act ensures that services between different agencies of the government are provided at actual cost.

Richardson's decision followed an extensive review of the regulatory, cost, proliferation, environmental, technical and national security issues associated with each option. He visited Bellefonte, Watts Bar, the Savannah River Site twice, as well as making a visit to the Fast Flux Test Facility at Hanford to see the sites firsthand. He held over 20 meetings with technical experts, nongovernmental organizations, national security experts, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, community groups and elected officials to ensure he had thoroughly reviewed the issues affecting the decision. The Energy Department also convened an interagency working group to examine the non-proliferation issues associated with the use of commercial reactors and concluded that any non-proliferation issues are manageable and should not preclude selection of commercial reactors.

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said, 'I commend Secretary Richardson for his leadership in ensuring that our nuclear deterrent remains strong and credible now and in the future. We fully support the selection of existing TVA reactors to meet our future tritium needs and will work with the Department on implementing this important national security decision.'

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Shirley Jackson said, 'I understand Secretary Richardson has announced his decision to select TVA's Watts Bar and Sequoyah reactors as a preferred alternative for a new tritium production source. Knowing how important this is to our nation's security, the NRC will review TVA's submittals and related DOE assessments, as expeditiously as possible, to ensure that this alternative meets all licensing requirements in order to protect public health and safety and the common defense and security.'

'Secretary Richardson had a tough decision and made a wise choice - one that will effectively meet our national security requirements and make wise use of taxpayer dollars over the long term,' said Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew.

Secretary Richardson's announcement today fulfills the Department's 1995 commitment to select between a commercial light reactor and a linear accelerator as the primary source of tritium by the end of 1998. Consistent with the Department's dual track strategy for tritium production, the linear accelerator option has been designated as a backup technology. The Department will complete key research and development milestones for the accelerator, but will not complete construction.

Pit Disassembly

Richardson selected the Savannah River Site as the preferred site for building and operating a pit disassembly and conversion facility; one of the three key facilities needed by the United States to dispose of surplus weapons plutonium.

'The pit disassembly facility is key to our efforts to dispose irreversibly of 50 metric tons of excess weapons plutonium,' Richardson said. 'Being able to do this safely and effectively is key to ensuring the future security of the stockpile and, for the first time in history, begin the process of destroying instead of creating weapons-grade plutonium.'

The facility would be used to disassemble nuclear weapons components (pits) and convert the recovered plutonium metal to an oxide form suitable for disposition (either immobilization or mixed oxide fuel (MOX) for reactors). In June of this year, the Department of Energy identified its Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, and the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., as equally preferred locations for building this facility pending additional public comment and detailed reviews. Today's decision follows extensive consideration of environment, safety and health, cost, non-proliferation, mission compatibility and pubic acceptance issues.

Previously, DOE named Savannah River as the preferred site for two other disposition facilities - a plant to fabricate plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which would be burned in existing domestic reactors, and a plant to immobilize plutonium in ceramic surrounded by vitrified high level waste.

'Choosing one site for the pit disassembly facility was not an easy choice because both sites are extremely well qualified and enjoy tremendous local, state and Congressional support,' said Secretary Richardson. 'In the end, it really came down to which site could best accommodate this important non-proliferation mission.'

Savannah River was selected because the site has extensive experience with plutonium processing. In addition, co-location of the pit disassembly facility with other existing or planned facilities at the site could provide some savings in infrastructure.

The Energy Department is currently conducting a demonstration of a prototype pit disassembly and conversion system at DOE's Los Alamos National Laboratory. The demonstration, which involves dismantling of pits over a two-to-three year period, will provide important information for designing and operating a full-scale pit disassembly and conversion facility. The full-scale facility is to be designed and constructed in the 1999-2004 time frame, with production operations beginning in 2005. Construction and operation of the full-scale facility is contingent on reaching agreement with Russia on plutonium disposition.

For the past two years, DOE has pursued its hybrid plutonium disposition strategy designed to irreversibly dispose of 50 metric tons of excess weapons plutonium. When the strategy is fully implemented, the United States will be destroying instead of creating weapons-grade plutonium for the first time in history."

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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