Notes from the Sausage Factory:
Readiness Critics Go Nuclear While Troops Suffer

September 2, 1998

Comment: #180

Discussion Thread:  #s 122, 128, 130, 135, 165, 166, 167, 168, 169, 172, 177


[1] George Wilson, "CBO Cost Figures Heat Up Fight Over Tritium Production Site," LEGI-SLATE News Service, August 27, 1998.  Excerpts attached.

[2] Email from company-level Army officer on training shortfalls (quoted at end of my comments)

Floyd Spence (R SC), the Chairman of the House National Security Committee and Senator Strom Thurman (R SC), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, are two of the most vociferous critics of the Pentagon's readiness. Many of their criticisms are well founded, but their argument that budget cut backs caused these problems is wrong. Readiness problems are more a consequence of misplaced priorities held by decision makers in the Pentagon and Congress, who say one thing but do another. [e.g., see the contrast between Senator McCain's laments about and his actions to reduce pork in Military Construction, Comment #s 128, 130,135,167].

The attached article by veteran defense reporter George Wilson is yet more evidence of how porkbarrel shenanigans soak up scarce defense dollars that could be better spent elsewhere. In this case, a defense-related boondoggle in the Energy Department, which is about to shovel money into South Carolina, could absorb some of the money Mr. Spence and Mr. Thurman say the Pentagon needs for higher priorities, like readiness.

The name of this game is tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen (Hydogen-3), with a half life of 12.3 years. Tritium enhances the explosive yield and lightens the weight of nuclear bombs, but its short half life (high rate of radioactive decay) means that it must be replaced periodically to keep the bombs functional. The United States stopped producing tritium in 1988 when it closed the last reactor at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. Since then, the United States has been maintaining its nuclear stockpile by using tritium from deactivated warheads, but over 40% of this stockpile has been lost to radioactive decay. Under current and projected arms limitation agreements, the US will have to begin acquiring new tritium in 2005. The question is how to obtain it.

In order of increasing cost, there are four generic sources of tritium:

  1. We could buy it and postpone the manufacturing decision. Canada has a large stockpile, because its heavy water reactors produce tritium as a by-product. But Canada has a policy of not selling tritium for weapons purposes. Russia has offered to sell America tritium at below market prices. Setting aside the obvious question of why we might need gobs of tritium, if the Russians are willing to sell it to us, this option has several advantages. It would give Russia desperately needed hard currency. It would help Russia dispose of fissile materials. Its sale, packaging, and transport would help employ underemployed nuclear workers in Russia. I do not know how much this option would cost.

  2. We could produce tritium by substituting Lithium-6 control rods for boron control rods in one of over 100 commercial light water reactors now used to generate electricity, like those operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This option does not require modification of the commercial reactor, nor does it increase operating costs, and the reactor could still be used to produce electric power. There would be additional costs for construction of a processing facility for extracting the tritium from the irradiated rods (about $700 million using existing, proven technology) and of making and transporting the lithium rods ($60-100M per year). As Wilson explains below, this option would be precluded if the Graham-Markey Amendment becomes law.

  3. We could produce tritium from lithium-6 control rods irradiated in a government owned, dedicated light-water reactor. The costs of this option would be construction of the reactor, construction of the reprocessing facility ($700 million), and the making and transporting of the lithium control rods ($60-100 million per year. The cheapest way to build a dedicated reactor would be to complete the TVA Bellefonte Reactor in Alabama (about $2.5 billion in constant dollars and $3 billion when inflation is accounted for).

  4. The final option would be to produce tritium directly by bombarding tungsten targets with protons fired down a mile long, high energy proton accelerator, built in South Carolina. Upon bombardment by protons, the tungsten target would spray neutrons into Helium 3 gas, and upon neutron absorption, would react to produce Tritium (Hydrogen 3) plus normal hydrogen. Scientists at Los Alamos have demonstrated that they can use a particle accelerator to produce small quantities of tritium by bombarding Helium 3 with neutrons. To produce the requisite quantities of tritium, however, the proton accelerator would have to be gigantic, would require the world's largest superconducting resonator (a difficult design task, which increases the probability cost overruns), and would require enormous quantities of power (450 megawatts) to run it. (One source told me, it might not be possible to run it during peak power periods on the East Coast). The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this option would cost $9.5 billion in constant dollars or 16 billion when inflation is accounted for.

Wilson shows how the debate of the best course of action has degenerated into a porking war between Alabama and South Carolina over the TWO MOST EXPENSIVE OPTIONS, with South Carolina, and the most expensive, highest risk option being the odds on favorite to win. Now it is important to remember that the nuclear weapons programs in the Energy Department fall under the 050 National Security Budget category that is used to calculate the defense budget cap approved by Congress and President. In other words, the Pentagon may have to reduce its budget so the Energy Department can increase its budget.

Read Wilson's report [Reference #1] carefully. You will see the subject is not really tritium, it is politics-as-usual in the military-industrial-congressional complex. It is just one more example, (remember the C-130J [#154] and the CVN-77 [#146]), of how "pro-defense" legislators weaken national security by shoveling money for hi-tech boondoggles to their home states.

Meanwhile, the troops in the field don't have enough money to train with. Perhaps that is why I keep getting email from company grade combat leaders like the one I receive this morning --

"From my perspective though, the money that was there in 1988 ain't here in 1998. For instance, our 60mm mortar ammunition allocation has been cut again this year (less than 480 rounds of HE for my 2-gun section). I could shoot my annual allocation in three days at the range. We haven't fired our 40mm M203 grenade launchers since September 1997. No ammo. Contractor went out of business. I haven't had an HC Smoke grenade in over 9 months, yet I have to breach obstacles without any obscuration and I have to train in MOUT [military operations in urban terrain] without any ability to screen movement. It's that and a lot more of the little things. I hope we can turn the train around because the money ain't in the field. And the soldiers suffer. How I still meet my reenlistment goals each quarter amazes me. I would like to think it is company command climate and focus on warfighting (versus the other companies), but I don't know."

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

CBO Cost Figures Heat Up Fight Over Tritium Production Site

by George C. Wilson LEGI-SLATE News Service



In constant 1999 dollars, the CBO said the South Carolina option would cost $9.5 billion, compared to $2.5 billion for the Alabama alternative. In dollars adjusted for government earnings on its money, the totals would be $6 billion vs. $2.3 billion, according to CBO.


"We've got everything on our side but the votes," said one lobbyist for the Alabama option, who did not want his name used. His pessimism stemmed from the fact that Chairmen Strom Thurmond of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Floyd Spence of the House National Security Committee -- South Carolina Republicans who want the $16 billion accelerator built in their home state -- will run the conference.


"Seldom do we agree on anything," said Graham of Markey. "But if we allow a commercial reactor to make a nuclear weapons product, we are taking 50 years of American public policy and turning it on its head at a time the world is in the most danger it has been in recent times."

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