TVA says tritium releases rise within Watts Bar Nuclear Plant

Steam rises from the cooling tower of the Unit 1 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tenn.
Steam rises from the cooling tower of the Unit 1 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tenn.
photo Steam rises from the cooling tower of the Unit 1 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tenn.

TVA's production of a key nuclear weapons component at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is expected to boost tritium levels within the plant above its prescribed limits this year even before the utility decides whether to more than double its production of the radioactive material.

TVA insists that the elevated levels of the radiated water within the plant presents no problems, but critics continue to object to TVA's growing production of the military material within a civilian nuclear plant.

In a letter sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and released this week, TVA says it expects its production of a bomb material for the military will boost tritium levels within the reactor core above the authorized annual levels sometime later this year. But J.W. Shea, vice president of nuclear licensing for TVA, said the release will not exceed any allowable levels for releases outside of the plant or pose any threat to TVA employees.

"There continues to be no significant radiological environmental effect associated with the Tritium Production Program," Shea said in a letter to the NRC. "TVA has not, nor do they believe they will, exceed any regulatory limits for tritium release into the environment."

But the notice of higher tritium releases within the plant's containment system comes as TVA considers plans to more than double its production of tritium for the military. TVA is completing an environmental review of the impacts of producing more tritium for the military at Watts Bar.

TVA extracts tritium from the reactor core of the Watts Bar Unit 1 reactor by installing TPBARs into the fuel rods of the plant during each fuel cycle. The National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for maintaining America's nuclear weapons stockpile, proposed this week in its fiscal 2016 budget that TVA boost the number of TPBARs in each fuel cycle to help replenish tritium supplies needed for nuclear warheads.

Tritium has a half life of 12.5 years, meaning that the substance has to be replaced on a regular basis to maintain the power of America's nuclear arsenal.

David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Chattanooga, said monitors should detect any tritium releases outside of the plant. But Lochbaum and others criticize the military use of civilian nuclear plants and the additional security and transport threats raised by such activity.

"It's like taking a gun aimed at our enemies and putting it against our own heads," Lochbaum said. "As TVA's letter points out, they are taking steps to prevent the trigger from being pulled."

But Lochbaum and other nuclear critics remain wary of DOE's plans to expand tritium production at Watts Bar.

"While this cockamamie program caused more tritium to be released and increased TVA's headaches, those limits continue to be monitored and should protect workers and the public," he said,. "Of course, smart people wouldn't put loaded guns to their heads and hope they don't go off. But since this program is one of DOE's, I guess this smart people analogy doesn't apply."

Tom Clements, director of the Savannah River Site Watch, said the TVA notice of extra tritium leaking from the TPBARS is disturbing and should give pause to plans for even more tritium production at Watts Bar.

"The record of avoidable tritium releases into the environment due to the militarization of the Watts Bar reactor is inexcusable given the poor rod design and potential public health and environmental impact of radioactive tritium," Clements said. "The NRC must not bend over and allow TVA and DOE to simply increase the tritium leakage level, particularly as DOE's focus should be on a reduction in the need of tritium due to weapons dismantlement legally mandated by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty."

The NRC will have to modify TVA's license at Watts Bar to allow for the proposed increase in tritium production. But the notice of the additional tritium releases within the reactor core from the TPBARs is not a licensing violation, NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said.

"The NRC staff continues to review the letter, but it is not part of any licensing or regulatory action," Ledford said Friday.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 757-6340.

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