Savannah River Nuclear Solutions said Tuesday it has commissioned a second furnace to prepare for four planned tritium extractions next year at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.
The Fluor-led site management and operations contractor said in a press release it had fired up a “previously unused” second furnace some time this year for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA): DOE’s semiautonomous nuclear weapons steward. The furnaces are used for the actual extraction procedure.
Tritium increases the efficiency of thermonuclear weapons. Savannah River Site personnel harvest the radioactive hydrogen isotope from tritium-producing burnable absorber rods rods irradiated in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Unit 1 nuclear reactor. Personnel pack that tritium into new reservoirs, which are installed in nuclear weapons at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas.
Personnel at the Tritium Extraction Facility were slated to perform two extractions in fiscal 2019, which ended Sept. 30, then four in fiscal 2020. In 2021, the agency would ramp up to eight extractions annually, according to its 2020 budget request.
“Having a second proven furnace will help us meet the increasing demands of that mission,” Wallis Spangler, senior vice president for NNSA operations and programs for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said in the press release.
In 2018, Savannah River personnel conducted two extractions at the tritium facility, each of which involved 300 tritium-producing burnable absorbed rods, according to the NNSA’s 2020 budget request. That is a little more than half the rods irradiated by Watts Bar Unit 1 during the plant’s 15th cycle in fiscal 2018, according to the request.
The NNSA’s tritium budget has risen about $70 million over the past three years. The agency requested $270 million for Tritium Sustainment in 2020, up from a requested $205 million for 2019 and less than $200 million for fiscal 2018. The extra extraction cycles planned at Savannah River account for the rise, according to the agency’s 2020 budget request.
The actual 2019 budget for the Tritium Sustainment account was roughly $290 million: Congress, contrary to the NNSA’s request that year, included within the account $85 million to downblend highly enriched uranium into low-enriched uranium that can fuel future irradiation cycles at Watts Bar. Cutting out the uranium downblending funds leaves about $205 million in the account, as requested, for tritium operations.