WASHINGTON — A major battle was under way Thursday in Congress over the future of the controversial N reactor in southeastern Washington state--a key element in the nation's nuclear weapons program.
In back-to-back actions, two influential U.S. Senate committees have voted to prohibit the restarting of the N reactor, which produces a third of the nation's weapons grade plutonium.
The one-two punch by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday and the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday comes at a time when the nation's ability to produce plutonium and tritium for its nuclear arsenal has already been slowed by production cutbacks at the government's other major reactor complex near Aiken, S.C.
U.S. Secretary of Energy John S. Herrington warned Thursday that the failure to restart the N reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash., "could severely restrict" the Department of Energy's ability to meet presidential strategic deterrent goals.
"The N reactor is essential to meet the material requirements for the President's strategic force modernization program," Herrington said. "Without this production capacity, improvements in the quality of these forces would be severely compromised."
The N reactor produced enough plutonium for 150 nuclear warheads annually, according to estimates by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private environmental group.
The aging N reactor, which is similar to the Soviet Union's ill-fated reactor at Chernobyl, was shut down Jan. 7 to undergo $50 million in safety improvements after concerns voiced by outside experts about its safety. The energy agency plans to restart it in July.
Last March, the agency sharply cut the power at three other operating plutonium-producing reactors at its Savannah River, S.C., complex because of concern that the reactors' emergency cooling systems would be unable to cope with an accident.
When power is reduced at a reactor, plutonium production drops. The reactors are now operating at less than half their levels of a year ago.
Crack in Containment
A fourth reactor at Savannah River, known as the "C Reactor," was shut down in mid-1985 when a crack was discovered in the reactor containment.
Opponents of restarting the N reactor took issue with the Herrington assessment. One of them was Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), whose amendment was accepted by the Senate Appropriations Committee to withhold all funds for restarting the reactor during the next fiscal year.
Hatfield, who has long opposed increases in nuclear weapons, said there was a "serious question as to our need for more plutonium. . . ."
Thomas B. Cochran, a nuclear weapons authority here with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said in an interview: "I could make a case that there is no need to turn the N reactor on. We have 25,000 warheads now."
Much of the plutonium used in new nuclear weapons is recycled from older weapons as they are retired. In addition, the government maintains a plutonium reserve, which is believed to be four to five metric tons, according to council experts. Overall, the United States is reported to have 100 metric tons of plutonium, including that contained in operational warheads.
Of greater concern is the capacity to produce tritium, which is used in thermonuclear weapons. Unlike plutonium, tritium deteriorates at the rate of 5.5% per year and it must be replaced in nuclear weapons already in the stockpile.
The C reactor in Savannah River, which was shut down in 1985, produced tritium exclusively. Now, some of the other three reactors are producing both tritium and plutonium.
One congressional source, who asked not to be identified, said that if the N reactor was not restarted, plutonium production would have to be increased at Savannah River at the cost of reduced tritium production.
There was general agreement among energy department officials, N reactor opponents and congressional sources that the committee votes marked a significant turn of events.
"I think the vote is very serious in terms of the future of the N reactor. I would say it's probably dead," said Robert (Stan) Norris, a nuclear weapons authority with the NRDC. He and Cochran are among four authors of an authoritative study on U.S. nuclear warhead production just published by the NRDC.
However, an aide to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) who is one of the Senate's most influential members on defense issues, said he expects lively debate before the committee actions are voted on by the full Senate. "This issue is far from being decided. Clearly, the full Senate is going to debate this issue and I believe it will do so rather strenuously," Thurmond aide Mark Goodin said.
If Congress approves the "standby" status urged by the Senate Armed Services Committee, the N reactor would remain closed, but it would not be dismantled, according to Goodin. He said the reactor could be restarted in the future "should that be in the interests of national security."