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23 December 1998

USIS Washington File

22 December 1998


(Department of Energy press release on announcement) (1490)

Washington -- Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson December 22
certified to President Clinton that the nuclear stockpile is safe,
secure and reliable without underground nuclear testing.

Following is the text of the press release on the topic issued by the
Department of Energy:

(begin text)

Richardson Certifies Safety, Security, Reliability of Nuclear
Stockpile Without Nuclear Testing

Makes Two Key National Security Decisions on Tritium and Pit

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

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 nonproliferation
issues associated with the use of commercial reactors and concluded
that any nonproliferation 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


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, nonproliferation, 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 nonproliferation 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

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.

(end text)

The New York Times
December 23, 1998

Civilian Reactors Could Be Used to Make Warhead Material


WASHINGTON -- Facing a shortage of a crucial component of nuclear warheads, the Energy Department announced today that it will use three of the Tennessee Valley Authority's civilian reactors to make the material, tritium.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson acknowledged Tuesday that the arrangement with the TVA, which is subject to congressional approval, breaks down a longtime distinction in the nuclear world by using a civilian reactor for military purposes.

However, he said, lining up the TVA's reactors encouraged nuclear nonproliferation because it eliminated the need for the United States to break ground on an expensive new military plant. Such a plant to produce tritium might be far larger than ever needed, if new arms control agreements are signed.

The department's last reactor for making tritium was shut down for safety reasons 10 years ago. For the past 10 years, weapons decommissioned under arms accords have been the military's source of tritium, and until now, the pace of weapons retirements has been faster than the pace of tritium decay. But unless Russia approves a new arms control agreement soon, the United States will need new tritium in six years to sustain its arsenal.

Richardson said the Energy Department had used provisions of a 60-year-old law, the Economy Act, to require the TVA to sell tritium at cost. Department officials said that if they had not been able to strike a deal, they would have asked the Navy requisition the reactors under national security provisions.

In a test that began 15 months ago, the Energy Department is already making tritium at Watts Bar, near Knoxville, Tenn. Technicians loaded metal rods into the reactor containing an isotope of lithium metal; when these are struck by the neutrons that sustain the chain reaction, the lithium breaks up into tritium and helium. In February 1999, when the plant shuts for refueling, technicians will remove the rods to extract the tritium.

The rods take the place of neutron-absorber rods that are used to control the reaction. They do not reduce power output, engineers say, and they expect to persuade the Nuclear Regulatory Commission quickly that they pose no additional risk.

The TVA had asked for $85 million a year to make tritium at three of its reactors. Richardson did not say Tuesday what the cost would be. But he said using the reactors, Watts Bar 1 and Sequoyah 1 and 2, near Chattanooga, is "the best option for our national security."

"It is a proven technology, it is the best deal by far for the taxpayer, and it has the flexibility to meet our present and future tritium needs," he said. If he had chosen a dedicated military plant, or a linear accelerator, construction would have had to begin soon, he said. By relying on reactors already built, the work would be done only as needed. "We may not need to exercise this option for many years," he said.

The department says it needs about 5.5 pounds of tritium a year to maintain the current arsenal, beginning in 2005, and 3.3 pounds if the strategic arms reduction talks, or Start 2, agreement is approved, beginning in 2011.

The decision drew mixed reactions. Some arms proliferation specialists said it would undermine the U.S. position in asking other countries not to divert material from their civilian nuclear programs into bombs. The Energy Department contends, though, that unlike plutonium, which is made in reactors and is the heart of a bomb, tritium is not controlled by law and cannot be used by itself to make a bomb.

The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a coalition of 28 environmental and peace groups, mostly around Energy Department weapons plants, said the decision is "unnecessary, undermines nonproliferation efforts, wastes taxpayer dollars, and threatens public health."

At the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington-based group advocating nonproliferation, Paul Leventhal, the president, said using existing reactors was "the cheapest, most assured method of producing tritium on an as-needed basis." But he said the use of civilian reactors should be reserved for national emergencies.

Members of Congress from South Carolina wanted Richardson to build a linear accelerator at Savannah River, and some officials near Hanford, the nuclear reservation in central Washington state, wanted Richardson to use the Fast Flux Test Facility, a plutonium reactor there. Richardson said Tuesday that he would decide next year whether to permanently shut that plant, which began life as part of a research program for plants that would make plutonium.

But Richardson also announced Tuesday that the department will build a plant at Savannah River, near Aiken, S.C., for converting plutonium from warheads into a powder, an intermediate step toward destroying the plutonium.

The TVA was also disappointed. It wanted to supply the department with tritium in exchange for a payment of $2.3 billion, which it would have used to complete its Bellefonte reactor in northern Alabama. It stopped work on the reactor in 1988 because of cost overruns and slack demand for power.