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Watts Bar lone source of a nuclear weapon material; TVA increasing production

That naturally occurring isotope – tritium – has only one public U.S. industrial producer: Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant.
Published: May. 24, 2022 at 6:14 PM EDT|Updated: May. 24, 2022 at 6:51 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Tensions between Russia and the United States over the conflict in Ukraine are reigniting thoughts about nuclear war. Both sides recently publicly docked nuclear subs – and Russia held drills with its nuclear fleet. A big part of our nuclear arsenal starts in our backyard. That material comes from only one place.

“The Tennessee Valley Authority has always had a national defense mission,” TVA’s Jim Hopson told WVLT.

For decades, the TVA has teamed up with the military.

“The tritium production at Watts Bar is just the latest reflection of that mission today,” Hopson said.

That naturally occurring isotope – tritium – has only one public U.S. industrial producer: Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant.

“As part of the nuclear weapons program,” Hopson continued.

Not everyone thinks the TVA aiding nuclear weaponry material is right. We talked to Daryl Kimball from the Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank wanting to limit the spread of nuclear weaponry.

“The civilian nuclear power industry is not to be involved in the production of nuclear weapons,” Kimball said.

Tritium supercharges our arsenal and boosts the explosive yield of nuclear weapons. The material has a very short half-life, only 12.3 years according to all sides.

“So that means if it’s not used, it needs to be refilled,” Hopson said.

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said Watts Bar inserts special rods into its reactors and farms tritium. For nearly two decades, thousands of rods have been produced. Eventually, the rods (commonly referred to as TPBARs) are driven to Aiken, South Carolina.

“The TVA is not involved in the transportation,” Hopson said, regarding the delivery to the Savannah River Site.

Still, some are concerned about radioactive rods riding our highways.

“If there is a traffic accident somewhere, we want high confidence that this material will never leave its packaging,” Hopson said. “Even under the worst accident scenarios that we can imagine.”

There are issues in tritium production, however. In a recent Friday notice to the ‘Federal Register,’ TVA officials said an outage at Watts Bar is held up.

“However, primarily due to adverse weather conditions and the emergent discovery of issues while removing the original steam generators and installing the replacement steam generators, the outage was delayed such that it is now scheduled to be completed by early June 2022.”

TVA

Plus, the TVA has been asked to ramp up production – at the same time tensions with Russia increase.

“Now a second is going to be used to boost tritium production - these are power production plants but they are also facilitating nuclear bomb production,” Kimball said. He is speaking of a second reactor.

Despite that, the TVA spokesman we talked to said “we have not seen a significant uptick in interest because of current world events.”

The 50-year-old Arms Control Association told us they believe the Department of Energy could use other tools to create tritium – though their goal is no more nukes at all.

“We are on the verge of a new and unconstrained nuclear arms race,” Kimball told us.

Tritium is a hydrophilic - which means the isotope wants to attach to water. Some expressed concern about downstream water supply from Watts Bar Lake. Note: tritium is a byproduct of nuclear reactors, though it’s ramped up at Watts Bar. We asked both the Arms Control and TVA about environmental impacts from the radioactive isotope.

“Local leaders, community members, you know, need to keep a close eye on the safety and environmental conditions that are effected by the tritium production and the waste that is going into the Tennessee river and the atmosphere,” Kimball said.

“The amount of tritium that may be placed in the Tennessee River, is well below TDEC standards, Well below EPA standards, and certainly excessively below the level of radioactivity that would cause any impact on humans,” Hopson said.

“In government speak, it’s ‘below regulatory concern.’ But that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be aware and somewhat concerned,” Kimball said.

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