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
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
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
improve the arsenal's capabilities.
Critics contend that the tritium decision will bolster those who
argue that the US position is hypocritical and encourages
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
... 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
the right direction," says Chris Payne of the Natural Resources
Defense Council, an arms-control and environmental organization in
Under the administration's decision, tritium would be produced by
the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) at its Watts Bar 1 reactor,
Nashville, and Sequoyah 1 and 2 units, outside Chattanooga. …