The Savannah River Site (SRS) Tritium Facilities, part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s operations, are designed and operated to supply & process tritium, an isotope of hydrogen gas that is a vital component of nuclear weapons. Tritium in the weapons stockpile must be replenished continually because it decays at the rate of 5.5 percent each year. The Tritium Facilities assist in accomplishing this task by recycling tritium from existing warheads and by extracting tritium from target rods irradiated in nuclear reactors operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the Tritium Facilities, recycled and extracted gases are purified to produce tritium suitable for use. This purified gas is then loaded into stainless steel containers called reservoirs. Tritium reservoirs are then shipped to the Department of Defense (DOD), where they are installed in the nuclear weapons.
Nuclear Stockpile Maintenance
The SRS Tritium Facilities’ role in Nuclear Stockpile Maintenance is replenishment of gas transfer systems, which improves the performance of nuclear weapons. “War Reserve” reservoirs (stainless steel containers that have passed rigorous quality checks) are loaded with a mixture of tritium and deuterium gas, finished, assembled, inspected, packaged, and shipped.
Nuclear Stockpile Evaluation
In the absence of nuclear weapons testing, weapon designers must rely on surveillance data to certify the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. Samples of nuclear weapons are removed from the active stockpile, and their gas transfer systems are sent to the SRS Tritium Facilities for evaluation. In these critical tests (function testing), a squib valve fires to open a hole in the reservoir fill stem, and surveillance specialists verify that the fill gas is delivered as expected. Prior to or during function testing, the reservoirs may be subjected to one or more conditioning steps that simulate forces potentially experienced during use, such as thermal extremes, vibration, centrifugal force, and drop tests. Metallographic evaluation and/or burst testing are performed following the function test to obtain valuable information about reservoir integrity, important in ensuring reliability of the weapons systems and leading to safer designs.
Tritium radioactively decays to helium-3, which has become a precious commodity. One reason for the tremendous growth in demand for helium-3 is its use in neutron detection equipment that is being installed all over the world to protect our nation and its allies from terrorism. We recover, purify, and bottle this valuable byproduct of tritium. SRS is the sole producer of helium-3 gas in the United States.