U.S. Tritium Production Plan Lacks Strategic Rationale

by Charles Ferguson and Frank von Hippel

Defense News, December 7-13, 1998, p. 29.

The Department of Energy intends to spend billions of dollars on either a commercial nuclear reactor or a proton accelerator to produce tritium for U.S. nuclear weapons. Either expenditure would waste money because a new tritium production facility is not needed.

The U.S. has not produced tritium since 1988 when military production reactors were shut down for safety reasons. Tritium, a radioactive gas, decays away with a "half-life" of about 12 years. In the year 2000, therefore, the U.S. will have about half as much as it did in 1988, a quarter as much in 2012, and so on.

Thanks to the end of the Cold War, however, the U.S. has plenty of tritium for its nuclear weapons. Enough tritium has been recovered from more than 12,000 retired warheads to supply the remaining 8400 warheads until the year 2010.

By then the U.S. should have far fewer warheads to maintain. Under the START II Treaty, the U.S. and Russia are to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a maximum of 3500 each. Including another 1000 "tactical" warheads that the U.S. is ke eping for fighter-bombers and sea-launched cruise-missiles, the total U.S. stockpile would be about 4500. Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin have agreed to reduce the limit on strategic warheads by another thousand by 2007 in a START III agreement, and Russia has proposed cutting by yet another thousand.

Below 4500 warheads the need for new tritium would be postponed until after 2020, and the U.S. will be able to delay the decision on any new production facility for a decade. If, as a result of START III, the U.S. reduces to a total, including tactical warheads, of 3500 or 2500 warheads, new tritium will not be needed for an additional five to ten years. In the longer term, if it is possible, for example, as a result of nuclear arms reduction agreements with Russia, China and the other nuclear-weapon s tates to cut to two hundred warheads -- still more than enough to destroy any nation -- the U.S. would not, in theory, need a new source of tritium until the year 2075!

Returning to the nearer term, however, the Congressional leadership argues that the Russian Duma has not yet ratified the START II Treaty and insists, therefore, that the U.S. must be able to maintain a tritium inventory such that the U.S. will not have to reduce if Russia does not. However, most of the missiles, missile submarines, and strategic bombers that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union are reaching the ends of their lifetimes, and Russia could not in any case sustain past 2007 a strategic for ce significantly larger than allowed by START II. A few years later, its maximum force will be much smaller.

The Pentagon knows this but is fixated on the fact that Russia has not eliminated its tactical nuclear warheads as fast as the U.S. Therefore, the Pentagon insists that the U.S. must keep thousands of extra strategic warheads filled with tritium as a bar gaining chip to compel reductions in Russia's tactical stockpile during the START III negotiations. Here again, however, the perhaps four thousand tactical nuclear warheads that Russia is still believed to have from its inherited Soviet inventory will ha ve to be retired by 2007. The most knowledgeable experts project that Russia will be unable to produce more than a few hundred replacement warheads.

The current debate over U.S. tritium "requirements" is therefore completely artificial -- driven by hungry nuclear contractors and politicians eager for a new multibillion dollar facility, and by hawks obstinately ignoring the decay rate of Russia's inhe rited nuclear arsenal. Their proposed choice between a reactor and an accelerator should be ignored. The wisest and most cost-effective course is to keep reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile in parallel with Russia's.

Charles Ferguson is a research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. Frank von Hippel is Professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.