Y-12’s shrinking supply of ‘heavy water’ could affect weapons work

OAK RIDGE — The government’s inventory of so-called heavy water, which is used in production of nuclear weapons, is dwindling and could be gone by 2019, according to a federal audit released today.

The audit report by the Department of Energy’s Inspector General said the shortage could become a national security issue if not given new priority. The inventory of high-purity heavy water, also known as deuterium oxide, is primarily managed and stored at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge.

“The heavy water is used to make lithium deuteride weapons parts which contribute to the explosive yield of nuclear weapons,” the audit report said.

There is currently no production facility for heavy water in the United States, the report said. DOE last produced heavy water in 1982, and the specialized plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina was dismantled in 1996.

The audit report said an assessment by a government contractor indicated it would take about 10 years to resurrect the U.S. production capability.

“That means that, if construction were to start immediately and proceed without major interruption, the new sources would not be available until existing inventories are nearly depleted,” the report said.

Steven Wyatt, a federal spokesman at Y-12, said the plant’s heavy water is stored in a “vault-type room” within the high-security area of the Oak Ridge plant.

The Inspector General’s report said quantities of heavy water are also needed in the stockpile stewardship program, including tests to ensure the reliability of nuclear weapons.

A couple of years ago, as construction of the Spallation Neutron Source neared completion, Oak Ridge National Laboratory tried to get some heavy water from Y-12 for use at SNS and was turned down.

The SNS planned to use heavy water in cooling loops around the research facility’s mercury target, which is used to produce neutrons for research.

Thom Mason, the director of ORNL, said the lab ultimately acquired about seven tons of usable heavy water from Savannah River, but the SNS needs 22 tons for operations. It may be possible to get additional quantities of heavy water from Savannah River, but it contains excess amounts of tritium and would have to be cleaned up for use in the systems at the Spallation Neutron Source, he said. A new technology being developed by a U.S. company may make that cleanup more feasible, he said.

Light water is currently being used in SNS operations, but it absorbs neutrons and reduces the neutron production by 15 to 20 percent, Mason said. That penalty will become a bigger issue in the future as the SNS ramps up in power and new research instruments come online, he said.

Mason said Y-12 declined ORNL’s request for heavy water a couple of years ago in order to preserve the dwindling inventory.

The other choice is to try to purchase the material commercially, which ORNL may be forced to do, Mason said.

Because of heavy water’s potential use in nuclear weapons, international sales of the material are highly restricted.

Mason said sources of heavy water are available in India, Russia, Argentina and Canada. ORNL would be able to purchase the material from foreign sources because it could promise the heavy water would not be used in production of weapons, but Y-12 would be barred because of the weapons use, he said.

The ORNL chief said he hopes the new technology for cleaning up contaminated heavy water will “pay off.” Otherwise, the lab will have no choice but to try to buy it on the open market.

According to the Inspector General, the National Nuclear Security Administration has identified several alternatives to meet future defense requirements, including the possibility of purifying contaminated stocks. Each of the alternatives would require a significant amount of time, the report said.

The IG said the government needs to establish a reserve of heavy water to meet weapons program requirements until a new production source is found.

“If the department does not take timely action to firmly establish future heavy water requirements and act according to secure new sources of the material, it is at risk of not being able to fulfill its future national security missions,” the report concluded.

More details as they develop online and in Saturday’s News Sentinel.

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Comments » 5

LCReader writes:

Do we have to tell everything??? Why don't we put it out on the sign next to the road?

will_austin writes:

We have enough Nukes to destroy the earth 5x over. I think we'll be ok with that for 10-15 years until we can make enough to destroy the world 6 or 7 times over. What's really sad is that they will undoubtedly figure out how to purify the contaminated stocks to use for weapons creation in a relatively short amount of time I'm sure (months). But it's taking years to engineer (or at least adopt) an alternative to internal combustion engines, and they would rather ORNL buy hard water on the open market then to even give them Y-12's contaminated stocks for SNS operations testing. Once again the war machine takes precedence over advancement. Don't get me wrong, I'm all about security, but I'm not totally sure that keeping stockpiles of Nukes is as viable of a defense strategy against the enemies we have today as it was against the USSR. What good is a destructive deterrence to people that would welcome martyrdom?

AmpTrap (Inactive) writes:

Water weighs 8.8lbs per gallon, how much does heavy water weigh?

bretticus25#294810 writes:

in response to AmpTrap:

Water weighs 8.8lbs per gallon, how much does heavy water weigh?

That's classified information. If you knew how much it weighed you would have to be killed, and then lithium deuterium plated. That's what happened to Hans, you know.

my10centsworth writes:

in response to AmpTrap:

Water weighs 8.8lbs per gallon, how much does heavy water weigh?

The specific gravity of heavy water, dideuterium oxide, water-d2, D2O, deuterated water is 1.107. So if the specific gravity of water is 1, then something that has a specific gravity more than 1 is said to be that much heavier than water. So, if you had an equal size amount of water and D2O, the D2O would weigh 1.107 times more than H2O

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