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The nuclear accidents at Chernobyl in the Ukraine and at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania were stark reminders of the dangers, and presumably of sufficient magnitude to reinforce the need for the tightest safety and non-proliferation safeguards possible.

But is our government actually serving as a watchdog over nuclear power facilities in the U. S. or is it retreating from safety and non-proliferation standards that have been the heart of national nuclear policy for 50 years?

With the nation focused on the holidays on December 22, 1998, President Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, quietly announced plans to produce tritium — a key element in the manufacture of hydrogen bombs — at the Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear plants which, heretofore, had produced only electric power for consumer and commercial use. The Administration’s action violated policies that had firmly separated the commercial nuclear reactors from weapons production at TVA under every Administration after the end of World War II.

The license amendment which would allow TVA to move into the production of material for military weapons still must be reviewed and approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Rejection of the license has been urged by the Union of Concerned Scientists and other nuclear experts like Dr. Kenneth Bergeron who worked 25 years at the Sandia National Laboratories performing or managing research on nuclear reactor safety and tritium production.

The clear separation of commercial from military uses of nuclear power is key to non-proliferation efforts in the U. S. and throughout the world. President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program in the 1950s firmly established the dual track strategy of isolating peaceful uses of nuclear power from military weapons.

As Dr. Bergeron points out, this system “expanded into a vast non-proliferation regime that in one way or another touched each and every aspect of nuclear technology throughout world.”

For the U. S. to abandon this strategy, as the Clinton Administration proposed, would be a dangerous precedent that would seriously interfere with non-proliferation efforts worldwide.

But, there other big negatives in dragging TVA into the military weapons business. Front and center is the question of safety — something that appears was not on the Administration’s radar screen when it decided to produce tritium at TVA plants.

Dr. Bergeron says that the government could not have made a “worse selection” than the plants chosen to produce the hydrogen bomb ingredients. All three of the designated plants — two at Sequoyah and one at Watts Bar Tennessee — are “ice condensers” that use giant wire baskets of ice chips to absorb heat and steam in case of a nuclear reactor accident. The buildings, housing the ice baskets, according to Dr. Bergeron, are small and weak and would be “exceptionally vulnerable” to severe accident conditions. The buildings, Dr. Bergeron says, would “almost certainly rupture immediately after the nuclear core core melted through its pressure vessel.”

Dr. Bergeron’s says his study of the ice condensers found that the system “has a high likelihood of failing in the event of a serious accident, leaving the public completely unprotected against the kind of massive release of radioactivity that occurred at Chernobyl….”

In addition, whistle blowers have come forward to raise other questions about safety at the TVA plants. One of these is Curtis Overall, who was the plant expert on the ice condenser system at Watts Bar with the responsibility for keeping the system running properly.

Overall found that more than 200 screws that held the ice condenser baskets in place were either missing or broken. When Overall recommended a visual inspection to make sure that there were enough screws holding the ice baskets in place, he was removed from his position and ultimately fired by TVA.

Another employee — Ann Harris — who filed a half dozen whistle blower complaints involving safety issues says she is convinced that TVA’s plan to produce tritium at the Watts Bar and Sequoyah plants “poses serious and real danger to millions of people.”

Recently, Dr. Bergeron and David Lochman of the Union of Concerned Scientists along with the whistle blowers appeared at the National Press Club to sound the alarm about the dangers of converting TVA into a weapons producing enterprise. Sadly, but to no one’s surprise, the national media largely ignored the press conference. Like so many health and safety issues, it apparently takes a Chernobyl or its equivalent to move the Washington press corps.