Sequoyah to produce bomb-grade material

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.

PDF: DOE tritium facility

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."

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.

TRITIUM TIMELINE1988 -- 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."