Future of DOE Heavy Water Supply Uncertain

News Sentinel, April 8, 2017 | Go to article overview

Future of DOE Heavy Water Supply Uncertain


A follow-up audit on the nation's heavy water inventory has shown some strides toward securing a long-term supply, but the measures will not be sufficient beyond about 15 years, according to the Office of the Inspector General.

Heavy water, or deuterium oxide, is a form of water that contains a larger-than-normal amount of the hydrogen isotope deuterium. The water is called "heavy," because the deuterium increases the chemical's mass. It also gives the chemical different properties than regular water that make it more useful for nuclear research and weapons production.

The United States has not been able to produce heavy water since 1996 and the Department of Energy's current supply is its only source for weapons programs. According to Y-12, it would take more than 10 years of lead time to establish a production capability.

The Office of the Inspector General first raised concerns about the DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) inventory in 2008, forecasting that the supply would dwindle by 2019.

Since then, DOE has been able to obtain some heavy water from the Department of Defense to be used for weapons activities only, along with a 32-metric-ton purchase from Iran that can not be used for any weapons related activities at all due to nonproliferation agreements.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory gets to use about six metric tons of that purchase to replace the water in an inner reflector plug at the Spallation Neutron Source. The plug keeps the target cool when it is struck by a proton beam.

Working properly, the plug should reflect neutrons back into the target and its moderators. The regular water that fills the plug now absorbs neutrons, but heavy water will maximize the target's neutron output to as much as 20 percent, according to outgoing Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason.

The rest of the purchase from Iran will be sold to private industry.

The acquisitions have extended heavy water supply by about 12 years, but, the audit said, dependence on uncertain sources and inadequate planning by the NSSA, which maintains the nation's nuclear stockpile, may endanger research and, especially, weapons activities beyond 2031.

Shopping abroad

The audit said the DOE does not expect to get more heavy water from the Department of Defense and that sales restrictions and fluctuating prices make the foreign market too unstable to rely upon. It cited the 2012 Nuclear Management Plan which said that Canada, a previously reliable supplier of heavy water, has restricted its sales to the U.S.

Policy analyst Andrea Stricker and founder Daniel Albright at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington disputed that statement in a report last December. They wrote that the DOE terminated a heavy water procurement process with a Canadian company to purchase from Iran when the country's inventory was found in excess of its 130-ton limit.

"We were in the process of going through a procurement process, basically at the same time that the Iranian deal was being made," Mason said. "That afforded us this other alternative which happened to line up with the direction the administration wanted to go in at the time."

Congressional proponents of the nuclear deal insisted the 32-ton purchase was a one-time event, but Stricker and Albright argued that selling the 26 tons of heavy water not used at ORNL would disrupt the global market in the future, especially if it is sold at the same rate the United States paid to Iran.

"The DOE purchase and sale of Iranian heavy water has threatened the prospects of avoiding a shortage in the future," they wrote. "The sudden appearance of this heavy water disrupted needed investment in a reliable long-term production capability of heavy water for both the U.S. government and private industry."

ORNL houses the business office for the DOE's isotope program that will manage the heavy water sales. …

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