“It means nothing. It’s notional.”
That was the response of Curtis Chambellan, document manager for the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the Production of Tritium in a Commercial Light Water Reactor.
I was asking about a slide from a presentation the National Nuclear Security Administration had made to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission earlier in the year.
“It’s just a placeholder,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
But it did mean something, of course. Unfortunately for the public, most of what it means is classified by the government as a secret—unnecessarily so, but that’s how the game is played. Still some information can be gleaned even from a placeholder.
“It’s there to remind us, when we are making the presentation, to pull out the classified slide.” The classified slide differed mostly from the notional slide in that it had numbers running up the side and across the bottom of the graph that would indicate when, exactly, the Department of Energy would actually need to produce new tritium to maintain the US nuclear stockpile.
“Across the bottom,” I said, “those hash marks would refer to years, right?” There were no numbers, but the scale is titled “Fiscal Year.” He looked at me without answering. “I mean,” I said, “it doesn’t really convey any information unless we know what Year Zero is, over here on the left. Is that this year, or 1999 when the tritium program began, or earlier, when it was being discussed, or next year. But whenever Year Zero is, the hash tags indicate a certain number of years passing as we run through the various sources of tritium available for weapons programs.”
Both Chambellan and I were right. The slide was notional, not meant to provide any solid information. It even had disclaimers: “Illustrates Concepts—Not to Scale” running above the graph. But it does provide some information.
For one thing, it identifies numerous apparent sources of tritium that could be used, over time, to replenish the tritium that is decaying in our active nuclear warheads right now. From Year Zero, if each of the Tritium Demanders is full up, the nation had enough tritium to last six years or so before dipping into our reserves. From there, tritium could be taken from something called the n-year Reserve, the Hedge Reserve (retired warheads we really haven’t retired in case we need them in the future—estimated in the thousands), the Laboratory Requirements, the Active Stockpile Pipeline, and, twenty-some years in the future, we would deplete all available tritium sources and begin to cut into the active stockpile. Except for a considerable amount held in something called the Savannah River Site Required Inventory.
The Savannah River Site Required Inventory is apparently a back-up supply of tritium that exists as a paper requirement, not a real world demand.
What the slide indicates is we “need” tritium for a lot of purposes in the weapons program, but if the scale is meaningful at all (and it does appear to be a real slide, just stripped of its numbers), the Active Stockpile is about 25% of the total tritium “need.” And the functional reliability of the stockpile, apparently, is not at risk of being compromised by a tritium deficit for decades.
This raises questions about the honesty of the statements in the Draft S-EIS for continuing tritium production at the Watts Bar nuclear reactor in Tennessee. If, in fact, weapons will not require tritium for twenty-some years, the dumping of 10,000 curies of highly radioactive tritium into the already compromised Tennessee River ecosystem can not be justified by weapons demand—it is unnecessary pollution.
Producing tritium at Watts Bar, according to the S-EIS, will not only further contaminate the Tennessee River and subject in-stream and downstream populations to unnecessary exposures in the water they swim and live in, or, if you are one of the several hundred thousand people who drink water from the river, in the water you drink, cook and shower in, it also has other significant effects.
Producing nuclear weapons materials in a commercial nuclear power reactor runs counter to a fundamental commitment of the United States and other nuclear powers not to mix civilian and military nuclear power and undermines US efforts to constrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons. After all, if we can build a dual use reactor to make tritium for our bombs, why can’t Iran use their reactor to produce plutonium or uranium for bombs?
The production of tritium at Watts Bar requires the insertion of special TPBARs (Tritium Producing Burnable Absorder Rods) with the regular fuel and control rods, and the TPBARs affect how the reactor operates by claiming neutrons that would otherwise be used to stimulate the fission reaction. You don’t have to understand the details of the physics—NNSA says in their Draft S-EIS the changes mean uranium fuel rods have to be changed out more frequently, resulting in 25% more spent fuel rods. Spent fuel is highly radioactive and is a proliferation risk in its own right—and there is no coherent plan for how to safely store or dispose of spent nuclear fuel; efforts to create a burial ground in Nevada have failed.
Which draws us back to the fundamental question—when does the United States need—truly need—to produce more tritium for the active nuclear stockpile? (We set aside the fact that this tritium could be purchased on the commercial market, probably at considerable savings, from Canadian vendors. Our government says we have to grow our own tritium to have a secure and reliable source. That justifies poisoning the Tennessee River.)
In the unclassified world, we can’t give a precise answer—which is just how the weaponeers like it. They want to be taken at their word, even though the last time someone checked up on them, they were lying by decades—the NNSA said they had to build a new plutonium bomb plant because plutonium pits were not reliable for more than 40 years, but an independent study by the JASON, experts with clearances and experience in weapons design, said the pits would be good for at least 80 years, and probably more.
But we can give a general answer with confidence. When does the US need to make more tritium for its bombs? Not now.
Put the question another way. What are we making the tritium at Watts Bar for? The list is long—n-year Reserve, Hedge Reserve, Laboratory Requirements, Active Stockpile Pipeline, and Savannah River Site Required Inventory—before you get to the active stockpile, the 1,550 warheads deployed around the globe as part the US nuclear posture.
The tritium they are making now is to satisfy a paper demand, to resupply aging warheads in a hedge reserve that will never, ever be used, to free up tritium for the National Labs to play with—but they can’t say that out loud to the public because that clearly does not justify the level of pollution they will dump into the river, or the amount of money they are spending on the program.
It’s time for NNSA to declassify its slide, to tell the public the truth, and to stop polluting the Tennessee River without a damn good reason.