There Goes the Nuclear Deterrent

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just served notice that the U.S. nuclear deterrent is in free-fall. All other things being equal, the nation’s arsenal will have to shrink to perhaps as few as 500-1000 weapons in the not-too-distant future.

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It is bad enough that our nuclear stockpile has been allowed to atrophy for decades as modernization has been deferred or blocked, realistic testing has been prohibited, critical facilities have been allowed to become obsolete, the necessary skilled workforce has been decimated and maintenance of the aging weapons that comprise the American arsenal has proved ever more problematic.

The House Armed Services Committee warned in 1993 that the deterrent was being subjected to “erosion by design” – and thanks to these sorts of deliberate actions – those chickens are coming home to roost today, with a vengeance.

Now, we learn that the stockpile is literally running out of gas.

A key ingredient used to boost the explosive power of thermonuclear devices is a gas called tritium. Unlike other radioactive materials used in such weapons (notably, plutonium and uranium), the usefulness of tritium degrades fairly quickly – its “half-life” is only about 12 years. As a result, the tritium reservoirs in our bombs and missile warheads must be regularly refueled in order for those weapons to remain operable.

But CNSNews service reports that the GAO has concluded that “NNSA’s inability to overcome the technical challenges and meet its original tritium production goals has raised serious questions about the agency’s ability to provide a reliable source of tritium to maintain the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile in the future.”

The immediate cause for this news flash is that manufacturing tritium the way we currently do – in the Watts Bar light water reactor run by the Tennessee Valley Authority – is today causing impermissibly high amounts of radioactive material to leach into the Tennessee River near Chattanooga. This train wreck was a predictable result, however, of ill-advised decisions taken in the late 1980s and mid-1990s.

In 1988, then-Secretary of Energy James Watkins shuttered the K reactor at Savannah River, Georgia – at the time the nation’s source for tritium. He did so betting on the come that a new Nuclear Production Reactor (NPR) would be brought on line in time to prevent a shortfall in the generation of that gas. Four years later, however, Adm. Watkins decided to abandon the NPR, as well.

Since then, the United States has been obliged to rely on its present practice of, as CSNS put it, “dipping special rods, known as Tritium Producing Burnable Absorber Rods (TPBARs), into nuclear reactors owned by the TVA.” These targets were developed by the NPR program as an insurance policy against problems with building the replacement production reactor. Unfortunately, they have proven to be inefficient and leaky – again in CSNS’ words: “The problem the government faces during this process is that some of the highly radioactive tritium leaks – or ‘permeates’ – into the water used to cool the reactors.” Regulators refuse to allow such activity and work-arounds (notably a holding tanks for contaminated effluent from the reactor) have yet to be implemented.

The trouble is, at the moment, the Watts Bar option for acquiring the tritium our nuclear arsenal requires is the only game in town. Harvesting tritium from weapons being retired from the inventory has staved off the problem for some time, but the GAO estimates that option will no longer exist after 2012. The only other sources of tritium are the Russians (not exactly a reliable supplier for our nuclear deterrent) and the Candians (who refuse to support our weapons program, or anybody else’s).

In short, the United States is now moving inexorably in precisely the direction Barack Obama has long championed – a substantially denuclearized, former superpower that will inexorably be fully disarmed in due course and that will, in the process, serve as a model for getting to “a world without nuclear weapons.”

The question is: Will the U.S. Senate go along with that agenda by agreeing to legitimate it through ratification of the New START Treaty in the upcoming lame duck session? Or will at least 34 Senators realize that the Obama agenda is putting the nation at grave risk and refuse to endorse it – either by consenting to its leading edge, New START, or by allowing our deterrent to continue running out of gas?

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