An Explosive Recharge: Nuclear Power Plants May Get New Life in Bomb Production

Article excerpt

Electric power companies could soon be in the nuclear-weapons business, thanks to a federal proposal to privatize production of a gas used in warheads.

The Energy Department has asked utilities to consider using their nuclear reactors to produce tritium while they're keeping the lights on and the air conditioner running.

That's not the only plum being dangled in front of the beleaguered electric industry. The agency last month suggested using nuclear power plants to help the country dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium by converting it to fuel to power reactors.

The proposals are a dramatic departure from the long-standing division between commercial and defense nuclear applications. But to an industry faced with heavy debt and the uncertainty of deregulation, they could be a windfall worth billions of dollars.

"It's safe to say there are substantial sums involved," said Brian Duncan, a spokesman at South Carolina Electric & Gas, which wants to use its V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville to make tritium.

"It is a national-defense decision," Mr. Duncan said. "Somebody is going to be doing it anyway. If . . . we've got a good plant and it benefits the community, then we have to look at it.

The Energy Department, following a presidential directive, asked utilities in June to consider making tritium, a necessary component of nuclear weapons that is in short supply. Because the gas decays, it must be replaced every 12 years, but the United States has not produced tritium since 1988.

With the Cold War over, however, the Defense Department is finding it harder to spend billions of dollars on things like nuclear reactors. The Energy Department proposals are a way to address defense needs while saving billions of dollars.

The urgent need for tritium has kept one dying reactor alive. The federal budget law signed this month includes $40 million to keep a reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state simmering while a group of private investors tries to persuade the Energy Department to make tritium there.

Hanford once supplied the nation's atomic bombs with plutonium. Now it stands as a massive waste dump that, until the budget passed, was in the process of being shut down and cleaned up.

The sudden reversal has angered some of Hanford's neighbors.

"As the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere, Hanford's sole mission needs to be cleanup," said Rep. Elizabeth Furse, Oregon Democrat.

But executives at Advanced Nuclear and Medical Systems say Hanford is the best answer to the nation's tritium needs. …