On 23 December 1998, US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced that the Department of Energy, which anticipates future shortages of tritium for the US nuclear weapons programme, will purchase the isotope from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar NNP in Alabama.

Another TVA plant, the Sequoyah station in Tennessee, will act as a backup in case Watts Bar cannot produce sufficient quantities of tritium.

The DOE decision was highly controversial because it appears to bend a 53-year-old US government nonproliferation policy against commingling of nuclear power and nuclear weapons programmes. Congress would have to approve the plan.

Rep Edward J Markey (Democrat-Massachusetts), the ranking minority member of the House Commerce subcommittee which oversees the US commercial nuclear industry, plans to introduce legislation in the 106th Congress that would prohibit using civilian reactors to aid US defence programmes.

A bill that would have blocked the use of commercial nuclear plants to produce tritium was approved by the House in the 105th Congress, but failed in the Senate.

Richardson told a news conference in Washington that DOE will use a federal law, The Economy Act, to require TVA to sell tritium to the federal government at cost. He rejected two alternative options for producing tritium that would have cost billions of dollars more:

• Building a new linear accelerator at the DOE’s Savannah River site in South Carolina.

• Completing TVA’s partially-built Bellefonte nuclear plant in Tennessee.

Richardson further noted that, in the event of further arms agreements with Russia, building new facilities dedicated to the production of tritium would leave the US saddled with unnecessary military plant and equipment. DOE will purchase tritium from TVA only on an “as needed” basis.

DOE also rejected of using the Fast Flux Test Reactor at Hanford, Washington.

“We concluded that separating military and civilian missions is manageable,” Richardson said. “We propose to do this mission in as open and transparent a way as possible,” leaving “the reactor facilities open to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.” The US has not produced tritium since 1988 when the DOE closed its last weapons reactor at the Savannah River Site.