Groups join OREPA in Tritium comments

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Sep 22, 2014 No Comments ›› orepa

The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance was joined by colleagues across the country in submitting comments on the plan to continue producing tritium (and polluting the Tennessee River) for bombs. Read the comments below:

Comments on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement
for the Production of Tritium in a Commercial Light Water Reactor

The following comments are submitted by the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance on behalf of our 2,300 members and the undersigned groups.


The first and most fundamental bar an agency should clear before proceeding with an action which may harm the environment is “Purpose and Need.”

The design of current US nuclear weapons requires a tritium supply to replenish tritium depleted through natural decay. The government has chosen to produce that tritium domestically rather than purchase it on the international market. Tritium can also be made available to supply the stockpile by recycling tritium from retired warheads. However, NNSA
determined that recycling could not meet tritium demands
even with the reduction in requirements. (1-3)
NNSA speaks from a position of power. Information about tritium availability is classified and not available to the public. This is not the same as saying NNSA speaks authoritatively—other knowledgeable persons, including former NNSA officials, have addressed tritium availability and need after completing their own analyses.

In order to clearly understand tritium availability, it is important to distinguish between tritium that is actually available and tritium that is unavailable due to paper restrictions. That is to say, according to the NNSA a significant amount of tritium that could be used for replenishment of tritium in warheads is “off-limits” because it has been designated for one of several reserve streams.

In the summer of 2014, NNSA provided a briefing on this matter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that referenced several categories of tritium. A slide prepared for that presentation conveyed no actual information—it was labeled “Notional” with a disclaimer indicating it was not to scale—and the slide did not document quantities or time frames. But it did make clear that NNSA maintains several stocks of tritium, including:
• n-year Reserve
• Hedge Reserve
• Laboratory Requirements
• Active Stockpile Pipeline
• Active Stockpile
• Savannah River Site Required Inventory

When NNSA makes the determination that “recycling could not meet tritium demands,” it does not distinguish between tritium actually required to service the active stockpile and tritium required to meet the demand of other repositories; neither does it make clear which of the non-active stockpile reserves are required to service the stockpile or are designated for other purposes. Finally, the notional slide gives no indication when replenishment demands might draw from the various tritium repositories.

Given the relatively short half-life of tritium, this matters. The notional slide suggests a distance between some of the repositories and the weapons—tritium in the pipeline, it would seem, is en route to weapons and is closer to its destination than tritium in the Hedge Reserve. When, if ever, the Hedge Reserve would be drawn on is not clear. It makes little sense, and wastes more than a little money, to produce tritium now that might not be required for twenty-five years (two half-lives).

In 2011, in a letter to Physics Today, nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel determined the United States could maintain an arsenal of 4,500 warheads through 2025 relying on tritium from retired warheads. This would correspond to a stockpile of 1,550 actively deployed warheads (START Treaty limit) and 2,450 additional warheads in reserve (currently, the US hedge reserve is estimated at nearly 3,000).

In an article in the National Journal carried by the Global Security Newswire, former NNSA Administrator Lincoln Brooks said it made sense to match production capability to upload schedules “since producing excess tritium has little value.” It might be more accurate to say it makes sense to match actual production to upload schedules, but the primary point of Mr. Brooks was that it makes little sense to produce tritium for long-term storage.

Dr. von Hippel further calculated that additional cuts to the US stockpile could push the “need” date out further into the future. Cutting the stockpile to 2,500 warheads, he said, with a reserve of 800 warheads, would push the need-year out to 2034.

This is the context for trying to understand the NNSA’s claim for a need for tritium. If the production of tritium were environmentally and economically neutral, there would be no need to consider the need. In this case, however, if there is no actual need for tritium to service the stockpile until 2025 or 2034, the contamination of the Tennessee River, the 25% increase in spent nuclear fuel, the risks of TPBAR transportation, the elevation of security risk for the Watts Bar nuclear reactor, the dice-rolling gamble on seismic activity, and the continued reliance on a dual-use reactor which undermines US nonproliferation efforts is entirely unnecessary.

It is difficult to imagine how the release of basic information about the need for tritium would compromise US security or disclose critical information about nuclear weapons design. Therefore, the Draft-SEIS should provide a thorough and comprehensive explanation of the destination of tritium being produced at Watts Bar, and the US should make every effort to avoid the considerable negative consequences of tritium production in a commercial light water reactor. This includes eliminating arbitrary requirements to stockpile reserve tritium.


An Environmental Impact Statement must provide analysis that clearly informs the public about the effects of a proposed action on the populations that inhabit the environment—humans, yes, and also flora and fauna. To be meaningful, that analysis may not rely solely on simulations and calculations but must be a real-world analysis.

In this instance, that would require dealing with the Tennessee River as it truly is. The Draft S-EIS fails to calculate the effects of an additional burden of 10,000 curies of tritium to a river system already heavily burden with contaminants from upstream sources—some of which are attributed to the same Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration that presents the public with this sanitized version of the river. Assurances that water meets “drinking water standards” provides scant reassurance to a public aware of the cumulative effect of contaminants, much less to the fish, turtles, salamanders, snakes, birds and other wildlife in this river ecosystem which have been hammered again and again over the last five decades.

According to DOE documents, significant quantities of Strontium 90 are released into the river system at White Oak Dam, along with tritium and transuranics. Past studies of Watts Bar Reservoir have documented metals, mercury, pesticides, PCBs, organics, radionuclides and more in the river. Efforts to contain contaminants in the burial grounds at Oak Ridge National Lab and the old K25 site have failed spectacularly, with wells and other areas on the far side of the river showing contamination—in September 2014, newspapers reported on five thousand gallon tankers hauling radioactive sludge from a facility across the river to be burned in Washington state.

The people who live downstream from these operations have a right to a comprehensive documentation of the threats presented in their drinking water; the government has a similar obligation to protect wildlife. It is not enough to say, time and again, “It’s only a little bit of poison in your water,” without saying, “added to the hundreds and thousands of other little bits we’ve dumped in the water over the decades.”

NNSA attempts to diminish the contamination and the risks it subjects in-stream and downstream populations with various calculations. However, the tritium doesn’t just go away, after all, just because it is mixed with a lot of water. It is still there; you just can’t find it. But the body that it finds is still impacted by a highly radioactive beta-emitter with the particularly insidious capacity to fool the body into thinking it is harmless, its malignant nature cloaked by its beautiful disguise; the body thinks it is water, and just like that the source of life is transformed into the source of death!—


In the wake of the Fukushima and Virginia earthquakes, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released information and instituted requirements related to the seismic qualification of reactors in the United States. News reports in 2011 cited the Sequoyah nuclear plant as having the fourth highest risk in country; Watts Bar had the fourteenth highest risk—out of 65 reactors.

Officials said Sequoyah and Watts Bar were built to withstand a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. In the Draft S-EIS, seismic analysis says the largest earthquakes registered in the East Tennessee Seismic Zone did not exceed 5.9 on the Richter scale. Recent studies at the University of Tennessee indicate otherwise; Robert Hatcher reported in 2011 that the East Tennessee Seismic Zone has experienced several earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater over a period of thousands of years.

A May 9, 2014 Wall Street Journal article said, “New models indicate several nuclear plants in the eastern and central parts of the country could have trouble withstanding seismic activity. Those reactors include…Watts Bar in Spring City, TN.”

The United States Geological Survey released an update of its 2008 earthquake hazard maps in August 2014. The USGS analysis considers hundreds of studies globally and found the earthquake hazard in East Tennessee is considerably higher than previously thought—the hazard increase was among the highest in the country.

The Draft S-EIS must be updated to reflect the most current information available on earthquake hazards. The design standards of Watts Bar Unit I should be articulated clearly. Information about earthquake hazards should be standardized—mixing Richter, Mercalli and g force information does not allow the lay public to understand the picture clearly; it mixes apples and oranges and grapes. Given that there is no direct correlation between these various ways of understanding earthquakes, the Draft S-EIS must provide coherent and accessible information about the earthquake risks to Watts Bar and the seismic qualification of Watts Bar.


Despite the long-lived nature of the environmental risks of spent nuclear fuel and the lack of a concomitant long-term storage plan for spent nuclear fuel, the Draft S-EIS outlines only a short-to-medium-term solution—in pools and then in dry cask storage. This follows a pattern of refusal to face up to the realities of nuclear waste. It will not go away, and we lack the capacity to guarantee long-term, environmentally benign, safe storage.

Watts Bar has at least 315 metric tonnes of spent nuclear fuel in pool storage inside the plant; Sequoyah has 812 metric tonnes in pool storage inside the plant and 282 additional metric tonnes in casks outside the plant.

The analysis of environmental impacts from spent nuclear fuel in the Draft S-EIS is not appropriately limited to “for the future as far as we can project at the moment.” Neither can the Draft S-EIS punt the risks down the road—it must be frank about the risks and the challenges. It must articulate the risks over time as long as the spent fuel remains hazardous, and it must lay before the public the failure of the government and the nuclear industry to achieve any feasible plan for isolation of spent fuel from the environment for the duration of its hazard-life.

Absent a long-term plan for spent nuclear fuel, the only reasonable path is to avoid any unnecessary generation of spent fuel. The irradiation of TPBARs in Watts Bar will affect the performance of normal fuel rods and ultimately result in the generation of 24% more spent nuclear fuel in each fuel cycle that contains TPBARs. This fact places an additional burden on the NNSA to fully and credibly justify its claimed statement of need.


The Draft S-EIS inappropriately dismisses commenters concerns about cost with “Costs are usually beyond the scope of NEPA documents such as this SEIS.” This is not true. To the contrary, NEPA regulations require federal agencies to consider the whole of the human environment, and socio-economic analysis is routinely included in NEPA documentation, especially in an Environmental Impact Statement that requires a greater level of detail and a broader scope of investigation than the less rigorous Environmental Assessment or a Categorical Exclusion.

In today’s fiscal climate, any money spent on one activity of the federal government is, literally, money not being spent elsewhere. Given that, the public has a right to a clear accounting of the cost of this program. When the Department of Energy is unable to allocate sufficient funding to address urgent cleanup issues in Oak Ridge, it is clear that trade-offs have impacts. We do not know, without actual numbers, how great those impacts are or are not.

The cost of the program is also significant to the Tennessee Valley Authority, a cooperating agency in this S-EIS. TVA has a significant debt load and continues to come under economic pressures; TVA’s balance statement affects ratepayers’ costs for energy—including the costs of disposing of spent nuclear fuel and costs for mitigation of contaminant in cooling water. The public has a right, and NNSA/TVA have an obligation to provide a public accounting in order to allow a clear and accurate understanding of the role economics plays in the decision to continue tritium production. This is especially true of an agency with a long track record of busted budgets and cost overruns, earning itself the unparalleled negative distinction of being on the GAO’s high-risk list for twenty consecutive years.


The production of nuclear weapons material in a commercial power reactor elevates Watts Bar into a rarefied status as a potential target for terrorists—a chance not only to do significant damage, but also to send a powerful message about US hypocrisy on nonproliferation demands. The Draft S-EIS downplays the likelihood of a terrorist attack while using “remote” or “very remote” to describe the risk.

In fact, the risk is not remote—the fact that Watts Bar itself is in a remote and relatively exposed location would argue for additional protections to guard against an attack, however deeply the irrational belief that “it-can’t-happen-here” may be held. It can happen here, and there are reasons why terrorists would choose Watts Bar; its status as a nuclear weapons production facility provides an additional layer of motivation for a terrorist seeking a target.

It may be that Watts Bar is constructed in such a way that a breach of the reactor chamber and an immediate release of radioactive materials is highly unlikely. This is not the same as saying no terrorist attack could be mounted which would render the facility inoperable and/or undermine the safe operation of the facility. Nor is it the same as saying terrorists could not mount a staged attack which had multiple goals spread out over time that could eventually result in the release of radioactive materials (in addition to the tens of thousands of curies of radioactive tritium already being released by the government itself).

If Fukushima taught us anything (and absent a final report from TVA in response to NRC’s requirements, we do not really know if it has), it is that we must prepare for the unthinkable. In an S-EIS, we must at least consider the unthinkable.

The Draft S-EIS says the addition of TPBARs would not significantly affect releases due to a terrorist event. That may well be the case. But the addition of TPBARs can reasonably be assumed to increase the attractiveness of Watts Bar to terrorists seeking a target.


The Draft S-EIS affirms the result of a 1998 interagency report to Congress that found the nonproliferation impact of tritium in a commercial power reactor to be negligible.

This requires a narrow and irrational view of nonproliferation, one that somehow exempts the United States from the requirements it would place on other nations. In fact, US attempts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability have highlighted this discrepancy and undermined the moral standing of the United States.

The Draft S-EIS tips its hand and reveals an astonishing arrogance when it defines nuclear nonproliferation as “preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons materials, and nuclear weapons technology to countries that do not have them.” This take on nuclear nonproliferation is known as the “pull-up-the-ladder” approach to nonproliferation.

When it comes to nonproliferation, which broader minds might define as an effort to constrain the behavior of all nations, what is most important is not what we think of our own behavior, but what other nations think of our behavior. So the fact that we have, through an interagency review, justified to ourselves our behavior may mollify internal critics but it has no affect whatsoever on our nonproliferation efforts—it does not change in any way the fact that we are producing radioactive materials for hydrogen bombs in a commercial power reactor. If we can do it—to produce tritium which is an essential element for our warheads—other nations can just as surely do it to produce the materials they need for their nuclear arsenal. Our hair-splitting of fissile and non-fissile is, in the context of crossing the dual-use prohibition, a distinction without a difference.

While the US insists on its “pull-up-the-ladder” definition of nonproliferation, many nations have weighed in during deliberations at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review conferences that they do not share that definition. The US surely must be able to see that other nations, those whose behavior we hope to influence, have a different definition, one which includes the reduction of nuclear stockpiles by weapons states (codified in Article VI of the NPT) as well as the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons to new states or entities. To these other states—those we hope to influence—our behavior speaks loudly enough to drown out the justifications of our interagency review and sends a clear message. Either we are a “we can do it but you cannot” nation or they can do it, too.

So by either definition, our narrow view or that of the great majority of the world, the use of a commercial power reactor to produce nuclear weapons materials is a nonproliferation confounder. It directly contradicts US nuclear policy and grants implicit permission to other nations the means they deem necessary to fulfill their chosen nuclear “needs.”

The Draft S-EIS must provide a mature and rational analysis of the significant and unique impacts inherent in the production of weapons tritium in a commercial power reactor.

The deficiencies identified here in the Draft S-EIS are substantial enough to warrant a re-draft of the S-EIS, and we are asking NNSA to provide a public hearing to review changes in the Draft S-EIS when the re-draft is available rather than follow the usual procedure of publishing a “final” document with no further conversation with the public.

Thank you for your attention to our concerns. Should you have questions or desire further information or clarification of these concerns, please contact Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance.

22 September 2014

Ralph Hutchison
Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance
Knoxville, TN

LeRoy Moore and Judith Mohling
Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center
Boulder, CO

Marylia Kelley
TriValley CAREs
Livermore, CA

Joni Arends
Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety
Santa Fe, NM

Jerry Stein
The Peace Farm
Amarillo, TX

Jay Coghlan
Nuclear Watch New Mexico
Santa Fe, NM

Mavis Belisle
Austin, TX

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