published Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Sequoyah to produce bomb-grade material

Audio clip

Dr. Arjun Makhijani

Audio clip

Jack Bailey

The Tennessee Valley Authority is preparing to make a key component for America's hydrogen bombs at its Sequoyah Nuclear Plant near Soddy-Daisy.

In the White House budget released this week, the U.S. Department of Energy said it wants TVA to make bomb-grade tritium at Sequoyah, similar to what TVA has done at its Watts Bar plant near Spring City, Tenn., for the past decade.

TVA officials said Tuesday that adding military production to Sequoyah's energy generation will have only a minimal impact on plant operations and fulfills the agency's federal mission.

"We've tested and done this type of production at Watts Bar since 1999 with limited impact on our operations," TVA Vice President Jack Bailey said.

But critics said such plans could heighten the risk of a terrorist attack near Chattanooga and weaken U.S. efforts to limit nuclear proliferation abroad.

"There's simply no need to turn the Sequoyah nuclear power plant into a nuclear weapons plant," said Ralph Hutchison, coordinator for the Oak Ridge Peace Environmental Peace Alliance. "If they do that, it becomes much more of a target for terrorists wishing to strike out at the United States."

Others worry that using another civilian nuclear plant for military purposes is contrary to what America's foreign policy approach has been to other countries wanting to use the nuclear power plants for military purposes.

"President Obama came into office with the idea that the days of doing what we say, not what we do, were over and America was going to lead by example," said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, which studies nuclear non-proliferation questions. "In this arena, I think it's especially important that we stop making tritium as Watts Bar, not expand where we are making tritium to another plant."

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ample tritium supply?

Dr. Makhijani said the nuclear weapons agreements being negotiated between the United States and Russia should negate the need for more tritium since the number of nuclear warheads -- once totaling nearly 32,000 -- could drop to around 1,000 for each side by 2024. Tritium could be reprocessed from the retired warheads to supply future needs, he said.

Tom Clements, the Southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, insists there is an ample stockpile of tritium. He said the military has wasted money on building a $506 million tritium extraction facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and paying TVA $139 million over the past decade for tritium production at Watts Bar.

"I'm truly baffled by what the administration is proposing because, from a supply standpoint, it just doesn't make sense," he said.

But DOE spokeswoman Jennifer Wagner said the military needs fresh sources of tritium to replace the decaying radioactive isotope. Tritium decays about 5 percent a year and has a half-life of a little more than 12 years, meaning that half of it dissipates over that time.

"Tritium is vital to maintaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent," Ms. Wagner said.


1988 -- U.S. Department of Energy shuts down its heavy water reactor used to make tritium at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

1997-98 -- TVA proposes $2 billion partnership with U.S. Department of Energy to finish Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Alabama to make tritium for the military and electricity for TVA.

1998 -- Energy Secretary Bill Richardson decides instead to use Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, with Sequoyah as a backup facility, to make tritium as part of the plants' normal energy production cycle.

1999 -- Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorizes test of tritium production at Watts Bar.

2003 -- TVA begins tritium production at Watts Bar in special nuclear fuel rods, which are shipped to Savannah River for final processing.

2006 -- $506 million tritium extraction facility at Savannah River begins operation.

2009-2010 -- TVA begins preparation to produce tritium at Sequoyah.

2012 -- Tritium production scheduled to begin at Sequoyah.

President Obama has emphasized that he wants to pursue nuclear arms reductions even as the military maintains its nuclear weapons production capacity, including tritium.

In the White House budget for fiscal 2011, the budget for DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration will jump by 13.4 percent to $11.2 billion. Ms. Wagner said the average annual costs from tritium production are forecast at $56 million per year, of which about $24 million will be paid for fuel costs.

shifting production

The energy department quit making its own tritium in 1988 when it closed its aging reactors at its Savannah River Site.

Mr. Bailey said DOE and TVA agreed in 1999 to a 35-year agreement to produce tritium at Watts Bar -- and to use Sequoyah as a backup site -- after DOE rejected an earlier bid by TVA to turn over its Bellefonte plant in Scottsboro, Ala. for full-time tritium output.

The plans to produce tritium at Watts Bar initially were opposed by many local residents and elected officials, including then-U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, R-Spring City, who lived near the plant. But Rhea County Mayor Billy Ray Patton said most of those early concerns have gone away.

"Prior to tritium being produced at Watts Bar, there were a lot of questions and concerns here in Rhea County," he said. "But I don't see any problems of them producing tritium at Watts Bar, and I don't see any problems with them doing it at Sequoyah, as well. It's worked out fine."

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KWVeteran said...

The most worrisome of this article are the portions that use the word "Obama".

February 3, 2010 at 7:45 a.m.
Blacktron said...

The White House budget intends for TVA to make bomb-grade tritium at Sequoyah? Thanks for the wise choices in the budget Mr. President. Lead by example? I am really starting to wonder about a lot of the Obama Presidency issues. Got to stockpile some more weapons of mass destruction in order to create jobs? Okay then, why don't you just farm this job out to Iran.

February 3, 2010 at 8:58 a.m.
faz said...

Weren't we promised that no weapons grade products would be produced at Sequoyah when the plant was built? If we want to comply with nuclear non-proliferation, we have to do our part by not manufacturing the materials to begin with. Administrations come and go and we cannot be assured that these materials will not be misused now or at some future date. The program that was to reimburse over exposed nuclear workers at Oak Ridge has had about a 75% rejection rate and has not paid many deserving workers or their families, who have literally given their lives to defend this country. Trust our military with these materials? I think not, in light of their recent use of depleted uranium weapons in Iraq.

February 3, 2010 at 9:48 a.m.
Fryyo said...

What a poorly named article. "Weapons Grade Material" is a term that is usually used when referring to Uranium or Plutonium. Tritium has uses other than just in fussion war heads, it is used in making "Stop" signs, biochemical research, ground water transport experiments and other uses.

Also, how could this journalist write this without ever noting how critical TVA was during the manhattan project and afterwards. How TVA was a key power provider to many war time industries during and after World War 2. There was key work done in Muscle Shoals for munitions. The fact is that TVA is part of the government and has a long history of PROUDLY supporting our country. Why is this any different?

The overly dramatic and technically incorrect title as well as the omissions of the history seem to imply that the author is more interested in his own political views on the subject than to provide factual information to the readers.

Of course, if TVA got $139 Million dollars from the military for the last 10 years, that is $139 million dollars that rate payers didn't have to fund, which means we all had lower rates. Lower rates are good for us, good for bringing business and jobs to the valley.

February 3, 2010 at 1:45 p.m.
sideviews said...

Tritium may be used for other purposes, but TVA is making tritium exclusively for the National Nuclear Security Administration to replenish the weapons material for hydrogen bombs. TVA did make munitions at its fertilizer plants and did supply power for Oak Ridge to develop the first atomic bomb during World War II. But that was to keep pace with the Germans and to help our European allies fight German attacks on their soil. Under the TVA Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority is supposed to help with the national defense. But World War II and the Cold War are over. We remain the world's only remaining superpower still trying to maintain the biggest nuclear arsenal. To produce tritium as a bomb material at a civilian nuclear plant of any type seems contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the nuclear nonproliferation agreement the U.S. has championed. What we are doing at Watts Bar and Sequoyah seems to be exactly what we have told Iran, North Korea and others they shouldn't do. As for TVA making money, it is being paid under the federal economy act and the military is supposed to pay only for TVA's costs, and not generate any net gain or profit for TVA.

February 3, 2010 at 10:09 p.m.
theamerican said...

Our government gets mad when these other countrys use their nulear plants for making nulear weapons. And here we are doing the same thing. I wonder what Iran is going to say when they find this out? They will probably say if the U.S. can do it. We can do it.

February 3, 2010 at 10:10 p.m.
sideviews said...

Listen to the audio with this story of TVA's Jack Bailey and he talks about how this is part of TVA's mission to support the military as part of its charter, similar to what TVA did during World War II.

February 3, 2010 at 10:17 p.m.
KnowNukes said...

STOP!!!! First, yellow journalism with the plant "making bomb-grade material." Does a factory that makes wiring, steel, circuit boards, cell-phones, automobiles, vests, underwear, shoes or clocks get this bomb-grade" bum rap from the Times Free Press? No? Media pushing hot buttons again? Yes?

Second, tritium turns into helium, undergoing this change with a half-life of 12.33 years. This means, Dr. Makhijani, that the tritium in the weapons when the DOE stopped production in 1988, half of it turned to helium by 2000, now a little over 1/4 of the original amount is left in 2010, only 1/8 will be left in 2024.

Is Obama thinking he is going to cut our nuclear weapons arsenal by 7/8? Thats a scary thought...

Instead of a nuclear deterrent, maybe he'll just want to talk to Ahmidinijad and hand him a Helium balloon with a smiley face on it...

Maybe a better title for the article would be "Sequoyah to produce EXIT sign - grade material" Coming soon to a Wal-mart near you... oh wait, the media thinks Wal Mart is evil, too...

February 4, 2010 at 10:33 a.m.
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