TVA submits license amendments for tritium production

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Tennessee Valley Authority has submitted license amendments which would allow it to produce tritium at its Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear plants.
   According to John Moulton, TVA media relations manager, the agency's plants were selected by the Department of Energy in 1999 to produce tritium for 30 years. In December 1999, the TVA Board approved an inner-agency agreement for TVA to provide the tritium production services. That agreement went into effect in January 2000.
   "The agreement was pending DOE actually asking for any tritium production and that had to do with the Department of Defense and the need for tritium production. That hasn't occurred yet, but TVA, I guess, had to start taking the steps to be prepared to do that. That's where we are now," Moulton said.
   TVA submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Aug. 20 to produce tritium at Watts Bar. A similar application for Sequoyah was submitted Sept. 21.
   Moulton said TVA successfully completed a test at Watts Bar in 1999 which demonstrated that tritium production would not interfere with the operation of the nuclear plant.
   "It posed no technical difficulties and did not impact the operation of the reactor," he said. No test was performed at Sequoyah's twin-reactors, located near Chattanooga, according to Moulton, which is the same type plant as Watts Bar.
   "Both have pressurized water reactors, as opposed to boiling water reactors," he said.
   "Following NRC approval and, of course, based on national defense needs, Watts Bar and/or Sequoyah -- depending on the amount that is needed -- could be doing tritium production as early as the fall of 2003. That would be the earliest that it would begin," Moulton said.
   The amount of tritium TVA would produce is to be announced this fall.
   "DOE will have to determine what the supply of tritium is that's available and how much they need, and whether they want to produce it or not. The United States has not produced tritium since 1988," he said, when the last tritium production reactor was shut down at Savannah River in South Carolina.
   DOE, by presidential directive, must have a new supply of tritium by 2005, he said.
   Tritium, a manmade radioactive isotope of hydrogen which is used in all of the nation's nuclear weapons, has a 12.3-year half-life and decays at a rate of 5.5 percent per year. It must be replaced periodically as long as the nation relies on a nuclear deterrent, according to the Department of Energy, which is responsible for developing and maintaining the capability to produce nuclear materials.
   DOE's Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Tritium Supply and Recycling, which was published in October 1995, evaluated the use of a commercial reactor for producing tritium for defense purposes. According to the PEIS, DOE originally projected that new tritium would be available by 2011. DOE now estimates that a new supply would be needed by 2005.
   DOE's baseline tritium requirement -- the amount necessary to support the 1994 Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Plan, which is based on a START II stockpile level of about 3,500 accountable weapons -- is classified.
   The baseline tritium requirement is made up of two components:
   * A steady-state tritium requirement to make up for tritium lost through natural decay; and
   * A surge tritium requirement to replace any tritium which might be used in the event the nation ever dipped into, or lost, its tritium reserve.
   While the war in Afghanistan is being fought with conventional weapons, should the president and Congress decide to use nuclear weapons, the president has the authority to pick up the phone at any time and instruct the Department of Energy to go ahead with tritium production.
   Asked whether the current use of military force could be used as impetus to push through TVA's application for tritium production, Moulton said, "As far as the national defense needs, that's up to the president and Congress to decide."
   But Ron Hernan, Watts Bar and Sequoyah project manager for the NRC in Washington, said, "We have our regulations and standards and I don't think we're in a position to have pressure applied."
   Hernan said the NRC is shooting for the total review process to last about a year during which time TVA's 260-page application for Watts Bar and 187 page-application for Sequoyah will be reviewed with health and safety concerns in mind.
   Tritium production is estimated to use 0.03 to 16 billion gallons of water per year, according to the PEIS.
   The NRC held a public meeting Oct. 2 in Evensville, Tenn., located between Dayton and Spring City, where Watts Bar is located. Approximately 50 people attended, according to Ken Clark of the NRC's Region IV office in Atlanta. Most of those, he said, were TVA employees, although a number of attendees were from local anti-nuclear groups.
   Critics of DOE's plan to use Sequoyah and Watts Bar argue that using TVA's commercial reactors for defense purposes would erode international confidence in nuclear weapons treaties, thus opening the door for the proliferation of nuclear weapons in other countries and encouraging the risk of terrorism and theft of nuclear materials.
   The next step in the tritium production process is for the NRC to post its findings via a notice in the Federal Register. From that point, the public will have 30 days to comment.
   Hernan said the NRC discussed its process at the public meeting and TVA discussed plant specifics of the tritium manufacturing process.
   "Attendees said, 'Don't we consider it inhumane for us to think about manufacturing tritium for nuclear weapons?'
   "You can't ignore such a request. The NRC has to look at the requirements and make a safety decision -- yea or nay, based on the Code of Federal Regulations," Hernan said.
   According to Moulton, some members of the anti-nuclear groups asked for an extension of the public comment period and also requested another public meeting.
   Any extension would be determined by the NRC.