Nuclear Nonproliferation:

Controls Over the Commercial Sale and Export of Tritium Can Be Improved

RCED-91-90: Published: Mar 25, 1991. Publicly Released: Apr 25, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined the adequacy of the Department of Energy's (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) existing controls on the commercial sales and exports of tritium.

GAO found that: (1) DOE and its contractor-operated Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) were slow to investigate the major shipper-receiver and internal tritium discrepancies that allegedly occurred at ORNL in July and August of 1988; (2) DOE, ORNL, and other investigators identified a lack of appropriate ORNL management and DOE oversight as underlying causes of tritium discrepancies; and (3) NRC performed limited monitoring of tritium end use because it considered tritium less strategic than special nuclear materials.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency accepted and implemented the recommendation. The recommendation should be closed.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that problems similar to those that occurred in the ORNL tritium program do not occur in future DOE commercial tritium operations, other isotope programs, and other similar DOE programs, the Secretary of Energy should emphasize to DOE program managers the need to adhere to existing DOE orders for the control of tritium, including DOE policy for immediately identifying, investigating, and reconciling shipper-receiver tritium discrepancies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE completed action on this recommendation. The agency accepted and implemented the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that problems similar to those that occurred in the ORNL tritium program do not occur in future DOE commercial tritium operations, other isotope programs, and other similar DOE programs, the Secretary of Energy should direct the DOE Isotope Production and Distribution Program Director and DOE operations office managers to ensure that management and oversight lessons learned from the Oak Ridge tritium program are transferred to other Oak Ridge programs and other DOE isotope programs at other locations, including the new commercial tritium operation at Mount Plant, Ohio.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NRC had previously told Congress in hearings that controls over tritium were adequate and continues to state that this type of analysis is not necessary because tritium by itself cannot produce a bomb; it is only a booster for a fission bomb. NRC considers this adequate protection.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should analyze the advantages and disadvantages of establishing a limit on the size of individual shipments that are allowed under tritium licenses, particularly as they relate to ensuring that the amount sent in a single shipment cannot be used as a booster in a nuclear weapons device if stolen or otherwise diverted.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State is now recommending a status quo approach. It does not want to be aggressive with the other countries.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should pursue, with the aid of the Department of State, obtaining written agreements from recipient countries for notification and approval of retransfer of exported U.S. tritium.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

 

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