Tritium Traffic: Deadly Dividends for Nuclear Industry

By David H Martin

In February, 1984, the British journal, New Scientist, published an article by Tom Wilkie, “Old Age Can Kill the Bomb.” It was an ingenious solution to the arms control nightmare of verification; controlling not only the number of weapons, but the strategic materials that fuel them—mainly plutonium, enriched uranium and tritium. Wilkie focused on tritium, because it turns into non-radioactive helium at a rate of 5.5 per cent per year. A halt of tritium production would rapidly cripple all nuclear arsenals. Thus, attention was rivetted on Ontario Hydro’s plan to produce about 57 kilograms of tritium by 2006. A one megaton thermonuclear warhead (equivalent to one million tons of TNT) may contain as little as one gram of tritium.

Tritium (H3) (a form of hydrogen that emits beta radiation), is a major radioactive pollutant from Canada’s CANDU nuclear power reactors. Unlike American reactor systems, the CANDU uses heavy water as a moderator and coolant. The moderator and the heavy water coolant slows down the neutron release from the uranium fuel in the reactor so that a chain reaction can take place. The active ingredient in heavy water is deuterium, another form of hydrogen. When the deuterium picks up a neutron, some of it is transformed into tritium. The concentration of tritium in the heavy water increases with the age of the reactor.

The CANDU reactor system produces 2400 times as much tritium as the American light water reactor. This is a gigantic problem for Ontario Hydro, the operators of Ontario’s commercial nuclear power reactors, because tritium is extremely toxic. As little as one billionth of a gram can cause cancer if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. One five-hundredth of a gram is fatal to an average person. Thus, since the early days of nuclear power in Ontario, critics have argued that tritium should be removed from the heavy water in the reactors to reduce the exposure of workers and surrounding communities. Ontario Hydro recently began to build a tritium removal facility when it became apparent that there was a very lucrative market for it. It sells for $15 million per kilogram—more than one thousand times the price of gold!

Tritium is used in several types of thermonuclear (fusion, or “hydrogen”) bombs. First, there is the “boosted” fission weapon. In this type of weapon, tritium causes a secondary fusion reaction, which increases the efficiency of the fission explosion, resulting in a much greater blast, and increasing the “yield-to-weight” ratio of the bomb. This is an extremely serious development, since lighter warheads allow for much greater flexibility in delivery vehicles. Nuclear-capable cruise missiles would not be possible without tritium-boosted warheads. Second, there is the “hydrogen” bomb proper. Tritium is used to provide an initial fusion reaction to boost the yield of the secondary fission explosion, which ignites the second (and main) fusion explosion. The technique of using the first stage to set off the second, or third stage, is the real H-bomb secret. This is known as the “Teller-Ulam Trick,” after its inventors, Edward Teller and Stanislav Ulam. The bomb uses only small amounts of tritium and other fissile material. The secondary fusion explosion “breeds” its own tritium from Lithium-6.

In both boosted fission weapons and the hydrogen bomb, a tritium/deuterium generator provides the neutrons that start the fission reaction. It is almost certain that all weapons manufactured by the nuclear weapons states are either boosted fission weapons, or more complex hydrogen bombs. Only the most primitive “first generation” fission weapons such as the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not use tritium.

Tritium also allows the yield of a nuclear weapon to be changed on short notice just before firing. This can be done by adding or taking out tritium and deuterium, which are gaseous, and can be moved in and out of the bomb core with relative ease.

Perhaps the most repugnant use of tritium is in the neutron bomb. Worldwide opposition slowed its deployment, but the Reagan administration has proceeded with this bomb, which is designed to kill people, but not damage property. It is a modified thermonuclear bomb, with a reduced blast and heightened release of neutrons (the most biologically destructive of all fission products). The neutron bomb uses much more tritium than other nuclear weapons, since it does not breed its own.

Tritium supply in the U.S. is also tied to plutonium production. Both tritium and plutonium are produced in the same production reactors at the Savannah River Plant in Georgia, but tritium occupies proportionally much more space in the reactors.

It was controversial when Dr. Tom Drolet, of the Canadian Fusion Fuels Technology Project (CFFTP) boasted in October 1984 that his organization had offers to purchase tritium from almost all major fusion labs in the western world. Most U.S. fusion labs are connected with the military through the Department of Energy, which coordinates and funds all nuclear weapons programs. CFFTP was created in 1982 as a joint project of the federal government, the Ontario government and Hydro. They will be the ones to marketing and handling tritium. Activists such as Lynne Bates in Whitely, and Randy Dryburgh in Orangeville are calling for Ontario government to stop the transport and export of tritium. Ms. Bates says, “Durham already has the Pickering and Darlington nuclear plants, so Hydro thinks that Durham residents will just put up with a doubling or tripling of radioactive shipments.”

Randy Dryburgh in Orangeville is active with Orangeville Citizens for Peace. For him, the question was at first only one of disarmament, but with shipments to roll along Highway 9 through Orangeville a local dimension is added… “The environmental concerns about tritium transport allow us to bring up the global concern of nuclear weapon proliferation — the two aspects of the problem complement each other.”

Tritium removal from the CANDU system must take place, because of the contamination problem. However, Ontario Hydro has tried to reduce costs by building only one tritium removal facility at the site of the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station east of Oshawa. This means that all of the heavy water contaminated with tritium from the Pickering and Bruce nuclear power plants must be shipped by truck. There are about 6200 tons of heavy water at Bruce, and about 4,124 tons at Pickering. Small shipments of heavy water from these two reactors have already taken place, and the Tritium Removal Facility (TRF) is expected to be in full operation by the time this appears in print.

The TRF can handle five shipments per week using the new transport system. The new transport trucks are flatbed tractor-trailers that carry two huge cylindrical flasks, each holding 4900 liters of heavy water. Large-scale shipments from the Bruce nuclear station are planned for as early as 1988. Says Lynne Bates, “It’s obvious that Hydro is trading off money for public safety—they would rather have these shipments going along the 401 forever, than spend the money and build two more facilities at Pickering and Bruce.” However, the local media has picked up the issue and local organizers are optimistic that public opinion will shift against the transport.

The whole question of tritium transport and export is a “green” issue; it has both environmental and disarmament aspects. There are many unanswered health and environmental questions about the domestic commercial uses of tritium, for fusion research and radio-luminescent lighting.

The federal government, and the international agencies that regulate the flow of strategic materials have so far refused to classify tritium as a “safeguardable” substance. The ostensible reason is that nuclear weapons can be manufactured without tritium, and therefore it is not an essential strategic material in the same way that plutonium or enriched uranium are. This is only technically true since, as we know, all nuclear weapons now being manufactured by nuclear weapons states almost certainly use tritium. Even Israel is apparently using tritium in its clandestine weapons program. In March 1986, the Canadian government approved the export of tritium, even to non signatories of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Ontario Premier David Peterson has stated that “If the Ontario government is to approve the sale of tritium, we will have to be assured that it will be used only for peaceful purposes and that its availability will not make available an equivalent amount of tritium in military stocks for use in nuclear weapons.” However, there are a lot of dubious propositions in this assurance. First, there is the question of whether purchasers will mix Canadian tritium with existing U.S. supplies, or keep it separate so that we can be sure it is not used for military purposes. Canadian uranium is now mixed with other uranium in the U.S., and there is no doubt that it is used in U.S. nuclear weapons. When Premier Peterson assures us that tritium will only be used for “peaceful purposes”, does he include research that may have military applications or spinoffs? For instance, it is clear that laser fusion research, which uses tritium and deuterium, is primarily for military applications relating largely to the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars).

Peterson also says that substitution of U.S. tritium would be unacceptable. However, since the only other supplier for civilian users of tritium has been the U.S. military, there is little doubt that Hydro’s sales will free up U.S. tritium. Hydro contends, however, that these sales will compete with the U.S. military rather than help them.

A black mark against Ontario Hydro is that the Canadian Fusion Fuels Technology Project already deals with military nuclear facilities in the U.S. They have sold tritium technology and expertise to Oak Ridge National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Serious proliferation implications accompany CFFTP’s “breeder blanket” experiments for the deliberate creation of tritium. Similarly, they are experimenting in laser isotope separation, with possible weapons research implications.

Through the CFFTP, Ontario Hydro is drawing Canada into the nuclear arms race through the back door. Hydro’s supposedly peaceful nuclear power program is becoming increasingly integrated into the production of American nuclear weapons—we are helping them to rationalize their production system by providing services, expertise, and strategic materials.

David Martin is on the Steering Committee of Nuclear Awareness Project.

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1987

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1987, page 14. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by David H Martin here

Peace Magazine homepage