WASHINGTON -- The United States could run short of a crucial ingredient for maintaining nuclear warheads -- tritium -- if it misses a 2015 deadline for analyzing the environmental effects of a potential production increase in the material, Energy Department investigators warned this week.
The department's nuclear-weapons office already failed to meet a mid-2013 cutoff date for fully assessing the impact of the proposed tritium-manufacturing uptick, the DOE inspector general said in a Nov. 18 report.
The United States uses tritium to increase the explosive power of its nuclear weapons, and the hydrogen isotope's natural decay process requires the nation to regularly harvest more from fuel rods in Tennessee Valley Authority power reactors.
If the environmental review drags on for another two years, the National Nuclear Security Administration might hit a shortfall in the tritium supply needed for the country's full complement of deployed and reserve nuclear arms, according to the IG findings.
Auditors said the Energy Department nuclear office currently expects to complete the review "no sooner than March 2014."
The environmental assessment "and the license amendment request it supports are critical to meet future tritium demands, which are expected to exceed Nuclear Regulatory Commission permitted amounts by October 2015," the Energy watchdog office wrote.
"If the license amendment is not approved by October 2015, TVA will be forced to produce less tritium than required by current NNSA plans," the document states, referring to the semi-autonomous arm of the Energy Department that oversees the nuclear arsenal.
One issue expert said this week's report could mark the first public warning that a tritium shortfall might result from further delays in preparing the required "supplemental environmental impact statement."
"If there's less tritium, some weapons may fall into a lower range of explosive power, while [the United States] could maintain others at a higher range," said Tom Clements of the progressive group Friends of the Earth.
He noted, though, that the projected shortfall does not account for possible nuclear-arms cuts in coming years. Clements also questioned the need to maintain sufficient tritium to augment the power of nuclear weapons being held in storage.
"DOE's very tight-lipped in [regard] to security information [about] exactly how much tritium there is in the inventory," Clements said in a brief telephone interview. "I don't accept this simple audit report as documenting that the stockpile is not sizeable enough to maintain the current deployed weapons."
However, a former deterrence policy official warned that a smaller tritium supply could limit the nation's flexibility in the face of unforeseeable future threats.
"I have already been concerned that this administration is constraining the timely options available to future presidents to adjust the size and composition of the nuclear force," said Thomas Scheber, who served as Defense Department director of strike policy and integration during the George W. Bush administration.
"We cannot know what flashpoints will result in [a future] conflict and whether the numbers or types of nuclear weapons proposed by this administration will be adequate in the future," Scheber, now vice president of the National Institute for Public Policy, wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.
This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.