Nuclear Science:

Accelerator Technology for Tritium Production Needs Further Study

RCED-92-1: Published: Oct 31, 1991. Publicly Released: Dec 3, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the feasibility of the Department of Energy (DOE) producing tritium, a critical material for nuclear weapons, using a linear accelerator, rather than a nuclear reactor, focusing on: (1) the appropriateness of the criteria the Energy Research Advisory Board (ERAB) used in performing its assessment of the feasibility of using an accelerator to produce tritium; and (2) the cost estimates used in the ERAB report.

GAO found that: (1) the ERAB report did not provide a complete assessment of the accelerator technology for tritium production, since the criteria ERAB used limited the scope of its assessment to a large accelerator capable of producing 100 percent of the 1988 tritium needs; (2) although the accelerator's electric power requirement could be disadvantageous, since it could require the construction of a new generating facility, ERAB did not consider smaller accelerators that could be deployed to provide more flexibility in meeting changes in the demand for tritium; (3) the ERAB cost estimates for the accelerator technology were higher than previous estimates due to higher ERAB cost estimates for contingencies to cover the risk in building the entire structure and for annual operating costs; (4) decreases in the projected future need for tritium to service existing and planned nuclear weapons may make the use of a small accelerator for tritium more attractive; (5) the successful development of the helium-3 target could almost eliminate radioactive waste from the tritium production cycle; and (6) although the use of accelerators for tritium production has potential benefits over reactor technologies, those benefits must be weighed against the maturity of the technology and uncertain cost.

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