Record number of tritium extractions completed at Savannah River Site

·2 min read

Sep. 27—Crews at the Savannah River Site completed seven tritium extractions this fiscal year, more than doubling previous records and satisfying Department of Defense demands.

The extractions were accomplished at the Tritium Extraction Facility, which provides the radioactive gas used in U.S. nuclear weapons. Five were promised for fiscal year 2021; the additional two lean into next fiscal year.

Mark Davis, a Savannah River Nuclear Solutions senior vice president for National Nuclear Security Administration operations, on Monday said he was "exceptionally proud" of the achievement, especially in light of challenges faced.

"They had been working hard over the past few years to prepare for this, because they know how important it is to the nation," Davis said in a statement. "Then, they had to add the measures necessary to protect themselves and their coworkers from COVID-19 and adjusted to those."

Tritium is a rare, and perishable, hydrogen isotope used to boost the yield or efficacy of nuclear weapons. The Savannah River Site, south of Aiken, is the only place in the U.S. where tritium containers, known as reservoirs, are produced and packaged for the military.

Without tritium, said Jason Armstrong, the NNSA's manager at the site, "there wouldn't be a nuclear stockpile, but it has a relatively short half-life, so it has to be replenished on an ongoing basis."

The extraction milestone announced Monday comes as tritium requirements ratchet up: From 2006 through 2016, only a single extraction was required annually; eight extractions per year are expected in 2026.

"It's absolutely vital for our nuclear deterrent," Armstrong said.

Charles Verdon, the NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, offered a similar assessment in early August: "Tritium is just an essential component for our weapons, and this is a facility that, if it were to go down, we will have an issue on our hands almost immediately."

The National Nuclear Security Administration is the weapons-and-nonproliferation arm of the Department of Energy, which oversees the Savannah River Site.

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