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By: Jay Rose, Office of Defense Programs

When Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson signed the Consolidated Record of Decision for Tritium Supply and Recycling on May 6, 1999, he ended a three-year decision making process. This effort had been a high priority for the Office of Defense Programs (DP) since December 1995, when former Secretary O’Leary announced the Department’s decisions stemming from the Tritium Programmatic EIS (DOE/EIS-0161) – an announcement that set off a chain reaction that would rock DP’s world. The programmatic decision triggered the need for DP to prepare simultaneously three related, high-profile project EISs, which became known as the “Tritium Trilogy.”

The story begins with the Tritium Programmatic Record of Decision (60 FR 63878; December 12, 1995), in which DOE selected a dual track strategy to further evaluate the two most promising tritium supply alternatives: (1) irradiating tritium-producing rods in a commercial light water reactor, and (2) developing a new tritium production linear accelerator, identifying the Savannah River Site in South Carolina as the location for the accelerator, should DOE decide to build one. In addition, DOE decided to construct a new tritium extraction capability at Savannah River.

Three Coordinated EISs Tiered from the Programmatic EIS

Based on commitments in the Programmatic EIS Record of Decision, DP proceeded to tier three project-specific EISs: the “Tritium Trilogy” (text box, below). 

While it is not unusual to tier a project-specific EIS from a Programmatic EIS, the tritium NEPA strategy was unusual because the three project-specific EISs shared more than just a similar schedule. What really “rocked” DP’s NEPA world was the degree of inter-relatedness among the three tiered EISs – they even shared alternatives:

  • No Action for the Commercial Reactor EIS was the Proposed Action for the Accelerator EIS, and No Action for the Accelerator EIS was the Proposed Action for the Commercial Reactor EIS. 
  • The alternatives for a new tritium extraction capability at the Savannah River Site included not only those in the Tritium Extraction EIS, but also an alternative in the Accelerator EIS that incorporated tritium extraction capability within the accelerator facility. 
  • The tritium extraction facility was to be capable of extracting tritium not only from commercial reactor targets but also from the alternative accelerator production targets. 

The relationships among these technically complicated proposed actions and alternatives would normally indicate that the proposals should be analyzed in a single EIS. After considerable thought, however, DOE decided that three narrowly focused – but carefully coordinated – EISs would be easier to write and to understand, and more useful to the public and DOE. The bottom line was to prepare three tiered, project-specific EISs with common goals: consistency, clarity, accuracy, legal adequacy, and complete analysis of potential impacts to affected resource areas.

Communicate Clearly

The most important factor in successful cooperation is full and open communication. Projects often suffer difficulties or delay because someone, somewhere, did not communicate fully and openly. In the case of the Tritium Trilogy, without such communication, the no action alternatives in the Commercial Reactor EIS and the Accelerator EIS could have been inconsistent, or the alternative of combining the tritium extraction capability with the accelerator facility might not have been analyzed.

Meet Early on "Framework" Issues

One of the best methods for resolving technical and management issues is to meet with the Environment, Safety and Health (EH) Office of NEPA Policy and Assistance, General Counsel (GC), and any other involved Program Offices well before preparing the Notice of Intent. This enables the EIS Document Manager to brief the “team” on the purpose and need and proposed actions, and for the team to design an appropriate NEPA strategy. This internal scoping process promotes common understandings among the participants and provides time to resolve issues before public scoping begins. The result is a smarter NEPA Document Manager, better informed EH and GC participants, more effective coordination with other involved offices, a carefully crafted NEPA strategy, a productive public scoping process, and ultimately, a better-informed public and decision maker.

The "Tritium Trilogy"

Final EIS for the Accelerator Production of Tritium at the Savannah River Site (DOE/EIS-0270) NEPA Document Manager: Richard Rustad, SR

Final EIS for the Construction and Operation of the Tritium Extraction Facility at the Savannah River Site (DOE/EIS-0271) NEPA Document Manager: John Knox, SR

Final EIS for the Production of Tritium in a Commercial Light Water Reactor (DOE/EIS-0288) NEPA Document Manager: Jay Rose, DP

Build Consistency into Your NEPA Documents

Once the interrelationships among the three EISs were recognized (working them out, of course, was an ongoing process), the documents could be prepared better. Communication was the key element in good management. Because both the Accelerator EIS and the Tritium Extraction EIS concerned the Savannah River Site, the two EIS preparation teams shared “affected environment” data. This enabled each document team to use resources efficiently while providing accurate and consistent data. With respect to the Commercial Reactor EIS, coordination with the Tritium Extraction EIS preparation team was essential because the tritium extraction facility would extract tritium from the rods that were irradiated inside a commercial reactor. It would have been problematic if the Commercial Reactor EIS discussed irradiating 4,000 rods per year while the Tritium Extraction EIS discussed a capability to extract 2,000 rods per year. Likewise, it would be inconsistent for the Tritium Extraction EIS to evaluate operations beginning in 2002 if the commercial reactors were not expected to provide irradiated rods to the tritium extraction facility until 2005.

Make Complex Matters Clear

DOE’s complex and dynamic proposed actions can be quite challenging to understand and explain. But if our plans do not make sense to us, how can we expect the public to do any better?

To aid understanding, each of the project-specific tiered EISs contained a common preface to explain the relationships among the projects. Staff from the Savannah River Site, DP, the DOE NEPA Office, and GC participated in preparing this common preface.

After publishing the three draft EISs, DOE received many comments that applied to more than one of the EISs. Many public comments on the Commercial Reactor EIS and the Accelerator EIS overlapped on issues such as nonproliferation, cost, or technical capability. This crosscutting required close teamwork among the NEPA Document Managers to ensure that responses in both EISs were accurate and consistent. We did not want two EISs to give different answers to the same comment!

Finally, after issuing the three Final EISs, DOE published a consolidated Record of Decision (text box) to avoid confusion that might have resulted from three separate RODs. While this, too, challenged our communication skills, the goal – to inform stakeholders and to direct those who must carry out the decisions – was worth it.

In conclusion – while the Tritium Trilogy may have rocked DP’s NEPA world – in the end the Department kept the beat.

Consolidated Record of Decision for the Tritium Supply Program

DOE’s Consolidated Record of Decision for Tritium Supply and Recycling (64 FR 26369; May 14, 1999) describes DOE’s plans for a new domestic source for tritium to support the nuclear weapons stockpile. First, this Record of Decision documented Secretary Richardson’s December 22, 1998, announcement selecting the commercial light water reactor alternative as the primary tritium supply, and designating an accelerator system at the Savannah River Site as the backup tritium supply source (although the decision did not authorize accelerator construction). Further:

  • The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Unit 1, Sequoyah Unit 1, and Sequoyah Unit 2 reactors are the specific commercial light water reactors that will provide irradiation services needed to produce tritium. 
  • The H-Area within the Savannah River Site will be the location for a new tritium extraction facility. 
  • DOE selected specific technologies and a specific location at the Savannah River Site for the accelerator production of tritium, should an accelerator be needed.