Radioactive Gas Releases Disclosed by Energy Department
H. JOSEF HEBERT
Nov. 08, 1991
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Energy Department said Friday it was seeking new safeguards following unplanned releases of radioactivity at most of the nine government complexes that produce or process tritium gas for atomic weapons.
Energy Secretary James Watkins issued a statement saying dose levels were below those at which workers or the public would be at risk. But he said the findings confirm that controls on tritium have been inadequate.
Tritium is a radioactive isotope used in making warheads for atomic weapons. It was not learned immediately how many releases were reviewed by the department or over what period of time.
Watkins ordered a detailed action plan to improve management of the radioactive gas to be completed within 60 days.
The Energy Department disclosed the accidental releases in a report issued by a department task force. It said most were the result of human error while ''system failure contributed to only a fraction of the releases.''
The report urged steps ''to bring about reductions in routine tritium releases, potential sources of non-routine tritium releases, personnel exposure and tritium residues at (the) DOE facilities.''
Watkins said the report ''responds to my concerns over the stringency by which we manage tritium operations in the department.''
''Although the report confirms that neither workers nor the public are at risk, I demand a degree of control over all tritium sources that based on these findings is not being met,'' Watkins said.
Tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, is an gas that is essential for atomic warheads if they are to operate properly. Use of the radioactive substance makes it possible to build smaller, yet more powerful weapons and still reduce the amount of plutonium in each warhead.
The three U.S. tritium producing reactors at the Savannah River weapons complex in South Carolina have been shut down since 1988 over safety concerns. One of them, the so-called ''K'' reactor, being refurbished and the department hopes to resume tritium production next year.
The DOE task force examined nine locations involved in various stages of tritium production and handling. These were:
-The production reactors, a tritium purification facility and a weapons production facility, all at Savannah River near Aiken, S.C.
-The Mound weapons production plant near Dayton, Ohio, which includes facilities to recover tritium from retired weapons.
-The Pantex weapons plant near Amarillo, Tex., where warheads are assembled.
-The Pinellas weapons plant near Clearwater, Fla. which produces warhead parts.
-DOE national laboratories of Sandia, near Albuquerque, N.M., Los Alamos near Los Alamos, N.M., Lawrence Livermore near Livermore, Calif., Livermore near Berkeley, Calif., and Oak Ridge near Oak Ridge, Tenn.
The department said that while control programs for tritium were better at some of the facilities than at others, ''incidental releases of tritium have occurred at nearly every DOE tritium facility.''