Nuclear Weapons:

National Nuclear Security Administration Needs to Ensure Continued Availability of Tritium for the Weapons Stockpile

GAO-11-100: Published: Oct 7, 2010. Publicly Released: Oct 7, 2010.

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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.

NNSA has been unable to overcome the technical challenges it has experienced producing tritium. To produce tritium, stainless steel rods containing lithium aluminate and zirconium --called tritium-producing burnable absorber rods (TPBAR)--are irradiated in the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Watts Bar 1 commercial nuclear power reactor. Despite redesigns of several components within the TPBARS, tritium is still leaking--or "permeating"--out of the TPBARs into the reactor's coolant water at higher-than-expected rates. Because the quantities of tritium in the reactor coolant are approaching regulatory limits, TVA has been significantly restricting the number of TPBARs that it will allow NNSA to irradiate in each 18-month reactor fueling cycle, and, consequently, NNSA has not been producing as much tritium as it planned. NNSA and TVA officials are continuing to develop plans to increase the number of TPBARs that will be irradiated, as well as, if necessary, the number of reactors participating in the program. However, these plans have not been coordinated with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which ultimately must approve any changes to the operation of the TVA reactors. NNSA currently meets the nuclear weapons stockpile requirements for tritium, but its ability to do so in the future is in doubt. NNSA officials told us that they will be able to meet future requirements through a combination of harvesting tritium obtained from dismantled nuclear warheads and irradiating TPBARs. Although the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile is decreasing, these reductions are unlikely to result in a significant decrease of tritium requirements and will not eliminate the need for a reliable source of new tritium because of the need to periodically replenish it in the remaining nuclear weapons stockpile due to tritium's decay. While NNSA has not, to date, been required to use tritium from a reserve that it maintains, use of this reserve in the relatively near future may be necessary if NNSA is unable to increase tritium production beyond its current level. Although NNSA has attempted to ensure a reliable long-term supply of tritium, GAO's review found two problems with NNSA's management of the Tritium Readiness Program. First, NNSA could not provide us with evidence that it adhered to the appropriate contracting procedures when purchasing components and services for the program. Second, due to, among other things, the way the program's contracts with its suppliers are structured, the program is spending its funds more slowly than planned and is accumulating large unexpended balances. The program is subject to thresholds established by the Department of Energy of acceptable levels of unexpended funds that may be carried over from one fiscal year to the next. However, the program exceeded these thresholds by more than $48 million in 2008 and by more than $39 million in 2009. While large unexpended balances are not necessarily an indication that the program is being mismanaged, it does indicate that the program is requesting more funding than it needs on an annual basis--funds that could be appropriated for other purposes. GAO recommends that NNSA develop a plan to manage tritium releases from reactors, analyze alternatives to its current tritium production strategy, ensure its contracting complies with appropriate contracting procedures, and ensure its future budget requests account for the program's large unexpended balances. NNSA generally agreed with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: 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.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: DOE has not yet completed an analysis of alternatives to its current tritium production strategy, as GAO recommended. Under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 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. As of August 2015, this plan had not yet been submitted to Congress although work on the plan was ongoing.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: 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.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: 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.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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