Controversial supplies – German uranium for US nuclear weapons?

19. Mai 2017  Atomenergie, NRW

Does non-military URENCO support the production on Tritium for US-nucelar weapons? German Journalist Jürgen Döschner published an article on that question on May, 11th on  german TV-News „Tagesschau„. This is a translation on that story, with permission by the Author. Thanks for that.

(Tagesschau) Controversial supplies – German uranium for US nuclear weapons?

„The company URENCO, which has an office in Germany, supplies uranium – including to the United States. To date, this radioactive export has been used to generate electricity there. But Washington could also put the uranium to good use in its nuclear weapons.

by Jürgen Döschner, ARD energy expert

Wednesday, 10 December 2014: A truck of enriched uranium departs from the premises of URENCO, a company in Gronau, Westphalia. Its destination is an American fuel plant: WesDyne/Westinghouse in Columbia, South Carolina. In fact, this is nothing unusual. The United States, which operates some 100 nuclear reactors, is the leading customer of the Gronau office of URENCO. In 2016, some 440 tonnes of enriched uranium were delivered to the States – more than to all other customers combined, including Germany.

But the destination of that 10 December 2014 shipment was a special one: the fuel plant in Columbia is part of the US nuclear weapons programme. Along with normal fuel rods for commercial nuclear power plants, Westinghouse also manufactures special fuel rods for the production of tritium, which are known as Tritium Producing Burnable Absorber Rods, or TPBAR for short.

  • What is tritium? Tritium is a radioactive gas that is required in all modern nuclear warheads to enhance their performance. Because of its short half-life of twelve years, almost six per cent of the tritium in the approximately 7000 nuclear warheads in the United States must be replaced each year.

Electricity for more than a million households

From Columbia, the TPBAR fuel rods are delivered by truck to the neighbouring state of Tennessee, to the Watts Bar 1 nuclear power plant in Spring City. The reactor with the special fuel rods produces electricity for more than a million households. And, thus far uniquely among reactors in the US, it also produces the tritium that is so important for nuclear weapons. It is paid for and strictly supervised by the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA), a sub-agency of the US Department of Energy.

It is unclear whether uranium from URENCO has been used in this process too. However, according to US Congress documents, as early as 2006 there were contracts between the URENCO branch in the United States and the nuclear power plant operator Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for supplying the Watts Bar and Sequoyah reactors.

Officially, the strict position of the US government has evidently hindered the use of URENCO uranium for the nuclear weapons programme to date. US law currently forbids the use of foreign materials or technologies in the military nuclear sector.

A thin line of separation from the military

But pressure on Washington to ease these regulations is growing: since 2013, the United States has no longer had its own uranium enrichment facility. At the same time, it has a growing need for tritium. Military experts warn of a “looming crisis for tritium production”, which they regard as a medium-term threat to the operational capability of US nuclear weapons. For that reason, in 2014 the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) called for a loosening of these strict regulations. The alternative would be for the US to develop and construct its own uranium enrichment, which would take a lot of time and even more money.

The example of tritium shows how thin the line is that is drawn between civilian and military use of nuclear power in numerous international agreements. URENCO was well aware of this, and in a 2005 legal memorandum questioned whether it would violate the current agreements if uranium from the US branch of URENCO were used to produce tritium for nuclear bombs. The memorandum concluded that no legal impediments were seen, as tritium was ultimately just a “by-product” of the energy production process. This assessment was unanimously approved by the highest URENCO supervisory body, which includes a representative of the Federal Government.

Debate over legality – „confidential“

The Federal Economic Affairs Ministry responded reticently to the question of whether this assessment still holds true today. „The meetings and documents of the Joint Committee are confidential, such that I cannot state any position on them”, a Ministry spokeswoman responded in writing.

Speaking with the radio broadcaster WDR, Hubertus Zdebel (The Left Party), a Member of the Bundestag from Münster and a member of the Committee on Nuclear Safety, called upon the Federal Government to take a clear position that uranium will never be supplied to the US nuclear weapons programme. Providing such supplies would clearly cross the thin line between military and civilian uses of nuclear energy.

Thus far, the management of URENCO has not responded to questions from WDR.“

Ausdruck vom: 22.05.2017, 19:08:15 Uhr
© 2017 Hubertus Zdebel, MdB