Could a Missed Deadline Spell Doom for the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent?

The Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant in Tennessee has made used reactor fuel rods available to the Energy Department for their tritium, a material used to augment the explosive power of U.S. nuclear weapons. The United States could face a tritium shortfall if the department's nuclear-weapons office fails to meet a key 2015 environmental-review deadline, auditors said.
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Diane Barnes, Global Security Newswire
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Diane Barnes, Global Security Newswire
Nov. 22, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

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.

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