Tritium is a radioactive gas used to boost the destructive yield of nuclear weapons. Thanks to strategic arms reduction and U.S. elimination of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, we need less tritium than we once did. Nonetheless Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins may announce this week that a tritium-producing reactor, the K-Reactor, at Savannah River, Ga., which was shut down for safety reasons in 1988, will be restarted.
Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) of the House subcommittee on military nuclear systems testified Tuesday at a hearing on the K-Reactor that "there is no military reason that compels production of tritium in 1992." In a letter to Watkins, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), chairman of the subcommittee on strategic forces and nuclear deterrence, were even more sharply opposed to the restart: "What is in the best interest of the tax-paying public and the national security: continued expenditure on obsolete facilities or expenditure on new environmentally sound replacement facilities that meet all modern safety standards?"
The K-Reactor has no containment structure. Unlike nuclear power reactors, it runs on highly enriched, bomb-grade fuel. An accident at the K-Reactor--unlike a nuclear power plant accident--could lead to a nuclear explosion. Robert Cornog, co-discoverer of tritium, said in a statement issued Monday by the DOE-Watch Project of Committee to Bridge the Gap, "Even if all the repairs and changes, both current and projected, are made to the K-Reactor, it still does not, and will not, meet the safety standards required of all the existing reactors used to produce electric power in the United States."
There is no compelling military reason to subject the Savannah River population to what Cornog describes as "a game of Russian roulette on a grand scale." We have all the tritium we need. Current stockpiles are adequate until 1998. Watkins should heed the advice of scientist Cornog, Rep. Spratt and Sens. Nunn and Exon and leave the K-Reactor in mothballs.