Source: Atomic City Underground | Frank Munger | January 15, 2016
Adm. John M. Richardson, the Navy’s chief of naval operations, unveiled his design for the future earlier this month, and the report said maintaining and modernizing the “undersea leg of the strategic deterrent triad” — nuclear-powered submarines armed with nuclear weapons — is “foundational to our survival as a nation.”
The Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge is an integral part of that plan.
Y-12 supplies the highly enriched uranium that’s used to fuel the nuclear-powered fleet. The deliveries are part of a long-term agreement with the Navy.
The plant also manufactured original parts for the Trident (W76) warheads deployed on sub-launched ballistic missiles, and Y-12 reportedly refurbishes those parts as part of the ongoing life-extension program for the weapon systems.
The Oak Ridge plant is the nation’s repository for weapons-grade uranium, which is highly enriched with the fissionable U-235 isotope.
In response to questions, federal spokesman Steven Wyatt said, “Y-12 processes enriched uranium for use by the Naval Reactors Program for naval nuclear propulsion.”
The Y-12 mission began in 2002, Wyatt said, drawing from stocks of highly enriched uranium, or HEU, stored at the site. Much of the uranium came from old weapons retired from the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
“In 2005, the U.S. announced that 160 metric tons of uranium from the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile would be provided to naval reactors, thus allowing a constant and reliable source to fuel the nuclear navy,” Wyatt said. “Supplying uranium feedstock for naval reactor fuel is currently planned through fiscal year 2050.”
In a U.S. Department of Energy report submitted to Congress last year — and posted online by the Union of Concerned Scientists — the DOE said the highly enriched uranium recovered from retired nuclear weapons and naval reactor “process scrap” would support the known demand for the U.S. nuclear Navy through 2060.
The report noted, however, that any “new applications” of naval nuclear propulsion beyond the current plans for the Navy fleet would “accelerate the consumption of existing HEU.”
Wyatt said he could not discuss the W76 life-extension work at Y-12, which has been underway for years as one of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s top priorities. He would cite only the nuclear weapon systems currently in “production” — the W76 and W69 warheads and the B83 and B61 bombs — thus incorporating weapons that are in dismantlement as well as life-extension.
Y-12 specializes in the manufacture of uranium and lithium parts for the second stage of nuclear weapons.