SOURCES: WASHINGTON POST, 5/1/95, “US Seeks Arms Ingredient As It Pushes Nuclear Pact,” and 5/28/95, “House Bill Would Order Nuclear Reactor As New Source of Tritium;” Author: Thomas W. Lippman.
SYNOPSIS: Even as the United States urges the rest of the world to indefinitely extend a treaty requiring signatories to work toward elimination of nuclear weapons, the US Department of Energy is planning a multibillion-dollar project to resume production of tritium-a radioactive gas used to enhance the explosive power of nuclear warheads.
Apparently the only decision not yet made as the year drew to a close was what kind of facility the department plans to build and where it plans to build it.
The choice is between a huge particle accelerator, using theoretically workable but untested technology, and a nuclear reactor, which would be the first reactor ordered in the US since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident.
Either choice involves immense political, financial, environmental and national security risks, yet the American public is little aware of the enormity of the decision to be made.
Many officials in the Clinton administration are averse to nuclear power and do not want the federal government to sponsor construction of a reactor. But many career staff members in the Energy Department and the Pentagon have long supported the nuclear industry and favor the reactor method of producing the tritium needed for the weapons program.
While Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary has pledged to begin work on a new facility to produce tritium in the next fiscal budget, she has been under intense congressional pressure to choose the reactor option and to build it at the Energy Department’s Savannah River, S.C., weapons plant where all of the tritium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal has been produced.
O’Leary’s choice appears to be between investing billions of federal dollars in a particle accelerator or accepting a proposal from a nuclear industry consortium to use mostly private funds to construct a reactor.
In late May, the Washington Post reported that the House committee had approved legislation requiring the Energy Department to begin development next year of a nuclear reactor that would produce tritium for the nation’s nuclear warheads, generate electricity, and burn plutonium as fuel. Meanwhile the National Security Committee tacked the provision onto the defense authorization bill.
While the bureaucrats’ and politicians’ argument has been limited to two choices—either the accelerator or the nuclear reactor—the American public deserves to be made aware of the issues surrounding this critical decision.
Further, the public should be made aware that there is a third option: not to produce the tritium needed to add more bang to America’s nuclear warheads.
SSU Censored Researcher: Tina Duccini
COMMENTS: Author Thomas Lippman said the nuclear issue did not receive sufficient coverage by the mass media but wondered, “What would you expect? It is a complex, somewhat arcane subject.” Nonetheless, he continued, “The public should be aware that while the Cold War is over, the arms race isn’t. The public should realize that billions of dollars are spent creating and marketing nuclear weapons.” Lippman added he’ll “leave it up to the public whether that’s a good idea or not.”
Lippman suggests the “lack of coverage results from the difficulty of the subject matter and a lack of sex appeal. No one was covering up or suppressing this information.” Lippman said the published articles resulted from: 1) his former experience in covering the Energy Department, including the nuclear weapons plants and labs, and his current experience in covering the State Department and foreign policy, which give him sources in nonproliferation and nuclear communities; and 2) the “willingness of the Washington Post to give news space to difficult complex subjects.”