Nuclear Weapons:

Challenges Remain for Successful Implementation of DOE's Tritium Supply Decision

RCED-00-24: Published: Jan 28, 2000. Publicly Released: Feb 7, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Department of Energy's (DOE) decision to select a commercial reactor for the production of tritium and to designate an accelerator to function as a backup, focusing on: (1) whether the cost estimates used by the Secretary of Energy during the process of selecting between the tritium production technology options were comparable and adequately supported; (2) what management, technological, and legal activities could affect the completion of the commercial reactor option on schedule and within budget; and (3) whether DOE's current plan for the development and design of the accelerator option is an effective backup that DOE could construct and operate within cost and schedule estimates.

GAO noted that: (1) the Secretary of Energy's December 1998 technology selection decision was based, in part, on the estimated costs of the two technologies under consideration--a commercial reactor and an accelerator--to produce tritium over the program's 40-year life cycle; (2) the commercial reactor option was estimated to cost from $1.2 billion to $3.6 billion over the program's 40-year life cycle, depending on whether DOE decided to invest in Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) partially complete reactor or to purchase irradiation services; (3) the accelerator option, which was estimated to cost about $9.2 billion, would produce a comparable amount of tritium over the same span; (4) in order to ensure that the selected option--the production of tritium in a commercial reactor --is successful, several key activities must be accomplished on schedule and within budget; (5) DOE must closely monitor the reactor program's cost and schedule baseline; (6) because of a congressional moratorium on tritium-related construction in fiscal year (FY) 1999, the schedule for completing the facility needed to process new supplies of tritium has very little time left to accommodate any further schedule slippage; (7) if DOE selects a non-U.S.-owned company to manufacture the specially designed rods that will be placed in TVA's reactors to produce tritium, additional time may be needed to qualify the company for access to the necessary classified technical data; (8) DOE must implement the detailed interagency agreement under which TVA will provide DOE with irradiation services; (9) finally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must approve amendments to TVA's operating licenses in order for its reactors to install the specially designed rods that will produce tritium to meet DOE's defense-related needs; (10) DOE's current approach for developing the accelerator introduces cost and schedule risks that threaten the accelerator's availability as a tritium production backup option as originally intended; (11) in its FY 1999 Stockpile Stewardship Plan, DOE stated that if the accelerator were chosen as a backup, the Department would need to complete an extensive technological development effort and develop preliminary and final design packages; (12) however, DOE reduced the funding allocated to the accelerator and redefined its approach to the accelerator backup option; (13) under DOE's current plans, it is unlikely that the plant could be built and begin producing tritium within DOE's original 5-year time frame; and (14) however, other alternatives for implementing the backup accelerator approach exist.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Press Release 02-109, the NRC granted a license to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to produce tritium in TVA's Watts Bar reactor on September 24, 2002. According to NRC Press release 02-116, the NRC granted a license to produce tritium in TVA's Sequoia reactor on October 1, 2002. Because these licenses were issued as expected, the need for legislation has been eliminated.

    Matter: To avoid any potential delay in licensing the use of DOE's tritium-producing rods in TVA's commercial power reactors, Congress may wish to consider enacting legislation that specifically authorizes NRC to review and act on requests for license amendments to use DOE's tritium-producing rods for tritium production.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As recommended, DOE reassessed its approach for providing a backup technology to produce tritium. As a result of the reassessment, DOE decided to scale back its backup effort. It did not request fiscal year (FY) 2001 construction funds, and suspended some of its design efforts. Some limited engineering demonstration activities will continue through FY 2001.

    Recommendation: To ensure that DOE balances its desire for an effective tritum backup with the need to make effective use of its limited resources, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Department to reassess its current approach for developing and designing the accelerator backup and select an approach that weighs not only the near-term cost but also the total life-cycle cost and schedule risk. In doing this, DOE should consult with Congress and seek legislative authority, if needed, to implement its chosen approach.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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