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Highlights

The National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Tritium Readiness Program aims to establish an assured domestic source of tritium--a key isotope used in nuclear weapons--in order to maintain the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. Because tritium decays at a rate of 5.5 percent annually, it must be periodically replenished in the stockpile. However, since 2003, NNSA's efforts to produce tritium have been hampered by technical challenges. In this context, GAO was asked to (1) determine the extent to which NNSA has been able to overcome technical challenges producing tritium, (2) determine the extent to which NNSA is able to meet current and future nuclear weapons stockpile requirements for tritium, and (3) assess the management of NNSA's Tritium Readiness Program. To do this, GAO visited facilities involved in tritium production and reviewed tritium requirements established by NNSA and the Department of Defense, among other things.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy 1. To increase confidence in the nation's continued ability to produce a reliable supply of tritium in the future and to improve the management of NNSA's Tritium Readiness Program, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Administrator of NNSA, in cooperation with TVA and NRC, to develop a comprehensive plan to manage releases of tritium from TVA's Watts Bar 1 and any other reactors chosen to irradiate TPBARs in the future.
Closed - Implemented
DOE has taken steps to manage releases of tritium within allowable limits that are consistent with the intent of GAO's recommendation. First, DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and TVA have collaborated to develop a reactor cooling water release model that provides a predictive capability for release of tritium that is within regulatory and environmental release limits. Second, NNSA, in conjunction with TVA, has completed and released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for tritium production in TVA reactors that documents expected environmental releases and how they relate to allowable limits. The public comment period on the draft SEIS is closed, and the final SEIS is expected for public release.
Department of Energy 2. To increase confidence in the nation's continued ability to produce a reliable supply of tritium in the future and to improve the management of NNSA's Tritium Readiness Program, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Administrator of NNSA to conduct a comprehensive analysis of alternatives to the current tritium production strategy in the event that NNSA continues to be unable to meet its tritium production goals. This alternatives analysis should be coordinated closely with DOD and take into account current and future nuclear weapons stockpile requirements for tritium.
Closed - Implemented
Since 2003, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), within the Department of Energy (DOE), has been using a commercial light water reactor operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to produce tritium, which is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen used inside U.S. nuclear weapons to enhance their power. In October 2010, we found that NNSA was unable meet its original tritium production goals due to technical challenges, which raised serious questions about the agency's ability to provide a reliable source of tritium for the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile in the future. To address this issue, we recommended that NNSA analyze alternatives to its current tritium production strategy in the event that NNSA continues to be unable to meet its tritium production goals. According to an NNSA document, the agency interpreted GAO's recommendation as a need to address contingency plans should NNSA be unable to meet its tritium production goals. Under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, enacted in January 2014, DOE was directed by Congress to submit a tritium and enriched uranium management plan to Congress by June 30, 2014 to include, among other things, an analysis of alternative technologies for meeting the supply needs for tritium and enriched uranium for national security purposes, which includes options if TVA should no longer be a viable supplier of tritium. In response to GAO's 2010 recommendation and the 2014 congressional mandate, NNSA undertook a study to analyze alternative technologies if TVA's commercial light water reactors were to become unavailable for the production of tritium, among other things. The results of this study were published in a final version of the June 2015 report titled NNSA's Tritium Readiness Subprogram Tritium Production Future Technology Study and also summarized in DOE's October 2015 Tritium and Enriched Uranium Management Plan Through 2060. As a result of NNSA's implementation of our recommendation, NNSA analyzed the availability of alternative tritium production technologies and concluded that the option of producing tritium through TVA's commercial light water reactor was the most cost-effective and preferred approach at that time
Department of Energy 3. To increase confidence in the nation's continued ability to produce a reliable supply of tritium in the future and to improve the management of NNSA's Tritium Readiness Program, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Administrator of NNSA to complete an acquisition strategy that reflects the outcome of the analysis of alternatives and aligns the contracting structure to that plan and, if necessary, ensures adherence to the appropriate contracting procedures for long-duration contracts.
Closed - Implemented
In response to GAO's recommendation to complete an acquisition strategy for tritium production that ensures adherence to the appropriate contracting procedures for long-duration contracts, NNSA released its Tritium Readiness Subprogram Acquisition Strategy (Strategy) on March 30, 2011. NNSA's Strategy explains its legal authority to enter into contracts of longer duration than typically allowable under the Federal Acquisition Regulation. The Strategy also described NNSA's plan to develop a new contract administration strategy to shorten the option periods to better align with the tritium program's schedule. NNSA subsequently took the actions described in the Strategy and shortened its contract option periods.
Department of Energy 4. To increase confidence in the nation's continued ability to produce a reliable supply of tritium in the future and to improve the management of NNSA's Tritium Readiness Program, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Administrator of NNSA to ensure NNSA's future budget requests account for the large unexpended balances in the Tritium Readiness Program and better reflect the amount of funding the program is able to spend annually.
Closed - Implemented
In response to GAO's recommendation to improve management of NNSA's Tritium Readiness Program by ensuring that NNSA's future budget requests account for the large unexpended balances in the program's account and to better reflect the amount of funding the program is able to spend annually, NNSA issued its Tritium Readiness Subprogram Acquisition Strategy (Strategy) on March 30, 2011. NNSA's Strategy included a commitment to make changes in contract administration to allow for more frequent obligations of funds for multi-year options, thus significantly reducing funding balances. Specifically, NNSA changed its contract option structure from 5-year options to 18-month options that coincide with the program's irradiation cycles at the Tennessee Valley Authority. Obligating funds every 18 months for each irradiation cycle instead of every 5 years for multiple irradiation cycles allows program funds to be obligated and expended more efficiently over the multi-year contract. GAO has subsequently reviewed Tritium Readiness Program funding balances annually as part of technical assistance to the Congress and has found significant improvement in timely funds obligation and expenditure.

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