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Department of Energy's Tritium Production Program

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Publication Date: November 2001

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL30425

Topic: Energy (Energy research and technology)


Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen used to enhance the explosive yield of every thermonuclear weapon. Tritium has a radioactive decay rate of 5.5% per year and has not been produced in this country for weapons purposes since 1988. To compensate for decay losses, tritium levels in the existing stockpile are being maintained by recycling and reprocessing it from dismantled nuclear weapons. To maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile at the level called for in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) II (not yet in force), however, a new tritium source would be needed by the year 2011. If the START I stockpile levels remain the target, as is now the case, tritium production would be needed by 2005.

On December 6, 1995, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued a Record of Decision to pursue a dual-track approach to develop the two options it considered most promising. The first was to investigate the purchase of the services of an existing commercial reactor or the reactor itself to supply radiation for transforming lithium into tritium (CLWR). The second was to design, build, and test a particle accelerator at Savannah River to drive tritium-producing nuclear reactions (APT). Both options could meet the 2011 deadline but only the CLWR option could be ready by 2005. If tritium is needed sooner, an interim source may be necessary. One possible source, the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) in Hanford, WA, is no longer an option because of nuclear proliferation concerns.

The DOE selected the purchase of radiation services from existing reactors owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Further, DOE will reimburse TVA for actual costs under terms of the Economy Act, which TVA agreed to. DOE estimates total costs for this option to range from $1.2 to $2.9 billion over a 40-year period. The TVA Board recently approved the contract with DOE, which should be signed soon. Work was to continue on the accelerator option for a period of time as a backup. The 106th Congress ratified this decision through the FY2000 defense authorization act (P.L. 106-65). This act also requires DOE to continue work on the APT option as a backup.

Even though the decision has been made, several issues exist that are not totally resolved and that might arise again as the time for tritium production approaches. These issues include the target date when production is needed, the costs of the various options, environmental and safety concerns, regulatory concerns, and possible nuclear nonproliferation concerns. At present, none of these issues appears to be serious enough to halt use of the TVA reactors for tritium production, although a license amendment by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to allow such production has yet to be issued.

For FY2002, DOE requested $124.5 million. DOE also proposes to closeout the APT project. Congress appropriated $123.5 million and directed that no funds be provided for the APT project. In the defense authorization bill, the House (H.R. 2586) authorized an additional $15 million to complete APT efforts while the Senate authorized the requested amount and made no comment on the APT project.