The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has received an application from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to produce tritium at its Watts Bar plant for use by the Department of Energy (DoE).

The application specifically requests that TVA be permitted to install tritium-producing burnable absorber rods at Watts Bar. The DoE has developed technology that would produce tritium using lithium, rather than boron, in burnable absorber rods to be installed in commercial PWRs. The irradiated rods would be removed from the power plant and shipped to the Savannah River Site where DoE would extract the tritium.

The licence amendment would allow, for the first time, tritium production by a commercial reactor to ensure future tritium stockpiling for military use.

The United States has not produced tritium – a radioactive form of hydrogen used in the fusion stage of nuclear weapons – since 1988, when DoE closed a special production facility at its Savannah River Site. Current short-term tritium needs are being met by recycling tritium from dismantled nuclear weapons. DoE is responsible for establishing the capability to produce tritium by the end of 2005, in accordance with a Presidential directive.

In 1997 NRC staff gave TVA the go-ahead to place 32 of the burnable absorber rods in the Watts Bar reactor core to test the technology. TVA irradiated the rods and removed them from the reactor. DoE shipped the rods to the Savannah River Site, examined them and confirmed that the technology worked.

TVA’s licence amendment, if approved, would permit it to install 2304 of the rods into the Watts Bar reactor and irradiate them for one fuel cycle, which lasts about 18 months. TVA would remove the irradiated rods and DoE would ship them to its tritium extraction facility at the Savannah River Site. TVA would subsequently install new rods in the reactor and continue the process for the life of the plant.