Risk of Breaching Wall on Nuclear Production Critics Say US Would Set Bad Example by Allowing Nuclear Power Plants to Make Tritium, an Atomic-Weapons Element

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For decades, the United States maintained a strict division between its military and civilian nuclear sectors by refraining from producing materials for atomic weapons in civilian reactors.

More than symbolism and secrecy were involved. The policy was also aimed at bolstering US nonproliferation efforts by discouraging other countries from using their civilian nuclear-power facilities for military purposes.

But the Clinton administration has breached that long-standing wall for the first time, authorizing the production of tritium in three civilian reactors. Tritium is a critical atomic-weapons component of which the US is running short. The Dec. 22 decision, which must be approved by Congress, has divided the arms-control community and added fresh tinder to a debate over whether post-cold-war US national security policies are helping fuel or throttle the global spread of nuclear weapons. The US has been a leading proponent of nonproliferation efforts and treaties calling for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, and is seeking to win Russia's assent on massive new cuts in atomic warheads. But nuclear arms still play a key role in post-Soviet US security strategy, and the Clinton administration is now pursuing a $45 billion program to maintain American nuclear weapons know-how and improve the arsenal's capabilities. Critics contend that the tritium decision will bolster those who argue that the US position is hypocritical and encourages proliferation. Making tritium in civilian reactors "is fundamentally inconsistent with our broader nonproliferation policy," says Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, whose proposal to include language in the fiscal 1999 defense budget that would have blocked the decision failed. "As a weapons-state, the US cannot effectively insist that non-weapons states not use their civilian energy programs for military purposes if we engage in such a practice here at home." Representative Markey says he intends to work to pass legislation that "would establish a general prohibition against civilian reactors ... being turned into nuclear bomb factories." Advocates respond that by using civilian reactors, the US will avoid having to spend billions of dollars building a new military production facility that would be seen as a reaffirmation of its commitment to atomic weapons. Such a perception, they say, would discredit US arms-control initiatives, such as the effort to persuade India and Pakistan to curb the nuclear race they uncorked with their tit-for-tat test blasts in May. "Every step that the administration takes away from rebuilding a permanent, dedicated nuclear-weapons complex is in our view a step in the right direction," says Chris Payne of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an arms-control and environmental organization in Washington. Under the administration's decision, tritium would be produced by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) at its Watts Bar 1 reactor, near Nashville, and Sequoyah 1 and 2 units, outside Chattanooga. …