published Thursday, February 4th, 2010

TVA argues for tritium production at Sequoyah

Audio clip

Terry Johnson

Concerns about protecting groundwater from radioactive tritium leaks while still meeting the demands of a multi-million-dollar Department of Energy weapons contract prompted TVA to make tritium at a second nuclear plant on Chickamauga Lake.

Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman Terry Johnson said each plant -- Watts Bar near Spring City, Tenn., and Sequoyah near Chattanooga -- has release limits for tritium and other radioactive materials.

At Watts Bar, where tritium has been produced for nuclear weapons since 2003, the substance has been found in the reactor's cooling water. In at least one instance in recent years, coolant water at Watts Bar has been spilled or leaked, records show.

Tritium, a key component for American's hydrogen bombs, first was tested in the Watts Bar reactor in 1999, and TVA contracted with the DOE that same year to make tritium at two sites -- primarily Watts Bar and, secondarily, at Sequoyah.

Tritium never has been produced at Sequoyah, but "if we can't meet all needs, we'll start producing it at Sequoyah," Mr. Johnson said.

The nuclear plants are the only two in the nation authorized to double as weapons-grade tritium producers, Mr. Johnson said.

But Nuclear Regulatory Commission records show groundwater sampling in 2005 at Watts Bar found tritium concentrations in a monitoring well on the plant site. At the time, levels topped 13 times the groundwater limit accepted by federal standards, according to NRC records.

Roger Hannah, a spokesman with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said he has no information that the NRC ever made recommendations to TVA to spread out its tritium production because of the leaks.

"What we look at is whether they can meet the needs without compromising safety," Mr. Hannah said.

TVA and NRC officials said Wednesday that the groundwater concerns have lessened, and current monitoring shows no tritium levels above EPA's standard for wellwater intended for drinking.

"This is something we constantly monitor ourselves to make sure there is no risk to the public," said TVA Vice President Jack Bailey. "Our releases (of tritium) have been much less than what the safe limits are allowed to be by the regulations."

Making tritium

Since 2003, TVA has received $138 million from the Department of Energy to produce tritium. Jennifer Wagner, a DOE spokeswoman, has said the average annual costs for tritium production are forecast at $56 million per year in the White House fiscal 2011 budget.

TVA's Mr. Johnson said there is "too much variability" to determine what profit the agency ultimately might realize from making tritium.

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Because its half-life is 12 years, it normally must be replenished in U.S. nuclear weapons, according to national defense officials.

Some of the nation's tritium replenishing needs have been met by salvaging tritium from dismantled U.S. nuclear weapons, but DOE officials have said some tritium production is essential for maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

PDF: Environmental assessment of Bellefonte

PDF: NRC report on Browns Ferry

PDF: Decision on Bellefonte Nuclear Plant

Article: Radioactive issue

Slideshow: Bellefonte future

Article: Step-by-step approach improves TVA performance

Article: Nuclear options for Bellefonte

Article: Georgia leads way in next generation of nuclear design

PDF: NRC letter to TVA

PDF: B&W nuclear reactor

Article: TVA eyes Oak Ridge nuclear plant

PDF: Sen. Lamar Alexander speech

Article: Alexander wants 100 reactors

Article: Georgia likely site for nuke’s new design

Article: Tennessee Valley Authority urged to increase nuclear power at Bellefonte

PDF: NRC concerns about Bellefonte permit

PDF: List of proposed reactors

Article: Tennessee Valley Authority seeks green power from windy Midwest

Article: Advocates push for more green power use

PDF: TVA renewable purchases

PDF: NRC comments on Bellefonte license

Article: Salvaging Bellefonte

PDF: NRC Bellefonte report

PDF: TVA renewable power

Article: Tennessee: TVA considers more renewable power

Article:Union rips Tennessee Valley Authority guard changes

Article: Tennessee: NRC OKs new work at Bellefonte

PDF: NRC Bellefonte permits

Article: Chattanooga: Nuclear power touted as solution to U.S. energy woes

PDF: Sequoyah order

Article: Tennessee: TVA guard falsified records, report says

Article: Prepping for a nuclear rebound

Article: Lining up for nuclear revival

PDF: Draft GNEP impact study

Article: East Tennessee makes push for nuclear fuel recycling site

Article: Tennessee Valley Authority power cheaper, more reliable, but operating costs still above average

Article:Tennessee: Area aglow over nuclear growth

Article: Chattanooga: Capitol ambitions held for cell Wamp says fuel unit tested at UTC lands $3.5 million in taxpayer money

Article: Lawmakers say lower gas prices shouldn’t dampen focus on energy

Article: Tennessee Valley Authority urges conservation to limit rate impact

Article: Tennessee: Staying beneath the debt cap

Article:Tennessee Valley Authority cuts contract for nuclear security

Article: Tennessee Valley Authority rate increase electrifies Congress

Article: Tennessee Valley Authority to study reviving Bellefonte reactors

Article: New Energy Reform Act of 2008

Article: Chattanooga: Law enforcement learns about transuranic waste

Article: Chattanooga: Nuclear may power local jobs

Article: Tennessee: New nuclear plants get more expensive

Environmentalists warming up to nuclear energy options

TVA a player in nuclear’s comeback

Nuclear waste shipments in Chattanooga growing sharply

Nuclear poised to take slice of energy pie

To make the tritium, DOE supplies TVA with lithium-filled rods that are placed inside the nuclear reactor in place of some of the reactor's control rods.

The replacements don't harm the ability to control or shutdown a reactor because they do the same job of absorbing neutrons as the regular control rods, Mr. Johnson said. But the lithium, when irradiated by the neutrons, convert to tritium.

When TVA removes the rods to refuel the reactor, the DOE picks them up and transports them to its Savannah River Site, where the tritium can be extracted and purified, Mr. Johnson said.

But both the NRC and TVA have acknowledged that there have been problems with the process.

"The (enhanced rods) did not perform as expected," Mr. Johnson said. "Tritium permeation into the coolant water is greater than expected. It's a process that happens on a molecular level."

Mr. Johnson used the analogy of helium leaking from plastic balloons in a matter of hours because the tiny helium molecules seep through.

The Department of Energy is continuing to work on improving the rods, according to TVA officials.

Tritium, also a normal byproduct of making nuclear power, can be found in some amounts in the coolant water of a plant, though normally not in the concentrated amounts produced in the special tritium production rods, officials said.

TVA's Mr. Bailey said the public shouldn't be worried.

"Tritium itself is one of the least harmful of the radioactive materials that we manage at nuclear plants, but that doesn't mean we don't treat it with a lot of respect," he said.

Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this story.

TRITIUM FACTS

* Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.

* It is used to boost the explosive power of nuclear weapons.

* It has a half-life of 12 years, which means it decays by about 50 percent in that time.

* It is used to make glow-in-the-dark faces for watches, compasses and other devices

Alex, sr edited; with CTFP archive photos, audio, AP graphic, box (tritium facts), locator maps for Sequoyah and Watts Bar, document (NRC tritium info paper), links and comments

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

3
Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
tomahawk said...

We condemn other countries for having this capability. This is in my backyard. Shut it down, bury it so deep that it will never hurt anyone. But for God's sake don't produce, don't ship, don't ever let it be used.

February 4, 2010 at 2:19 p.m.
larryt8 said...

The NIMBY attitude is what is wrong with this world. It's OK for third world countires to produce this for the neat glow-in-the dark watches, as well as other modern 'necessities,' however, most of the NIMBY people are also the ones to complain that all of our stuff comes from 3rd world countires, and 'What about our american workers?' Please realize that I do not condemn your viewpoint. I am, at times, overwhelmed with emotion to know that we live in a country where all points of view are allowed to be expressed. But realize what you will lose if you make this (i.e. Sequoyah and Watts Bar Nuclear Plants) go away.... Your home heating costs will go up, your fuel costs will go up, as well as the costs with many products that will also compete for the same 'necessary' petroleum products. As far as the production goes, it is the knowledge that we have a Nuclear Aresnal that provides a deterent for the other Major Countries, dissuading them from attacking ours. While this strategy is obviously not working the same against terrorists, as they seem to have no care for their originating countries, nor form themselves for that matter, we still have to maintain the arsenal that we have to continue enjoying the freedoms that make this Country so Great.

February 4, 2010 at 4:25 p.m.
Winston_Smith said...

TVA has extensive expertise and a wonderful track record in safely maintaining hazardous materials. Just look at Roane County. Clearly there is little risk of the tritium leaching into the local drinking water. What could possibly go wrong?

February 4, 2010 at 9:52 p.m.
please login to post a comment

videos »         

photos »         

e-edition »

advertisement
advertisement
400 East 11th St., Chattanooga, TN 37403
General Information (423) 756-6900
Copyright, Permissions, Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Ethics policy - Copyright ©2014, Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may not be reprinted without the express written permission of Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc.