OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (AP) — The National Nuclear Security Administration says it has identified "other sources" of purified lithium for use in refurbishing nuclear warheads.
The update information could alleviate concerns raised last year that the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee could run out of the material as early as 2018, the Knoxville News Sentinel (bit.ly/1Qh7tHZ) reported.
"We are now projecting we have enough lithium to get through 2028 without any concern," Brigadier General Stephen L. Davis, the NNSA's acting deputy administrator for defense programs, said recently.
Separate reports in 2015 raised questions about Y-12's ability to meet its future lithium needs until a planned production facility comes online in the 2025 time frame. The reports were by the Government Accountability Office and the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General.
The Oak Ridge plant in Tennessee is reported to be the only facility in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex that can produce lithium materials for weapons use.
"The isotope lithium-6 is a key component of nuclear weapons and is therefore essential for the refurbishment of the nuclear weapons stockpile," the GAO report stated.
Y-12 produced a large stockpile of the lithium isotope from 1953 to 1964 as part of the Cold War development of the hydrogen bomb. Those separation processes required vast tons of mercury, and there were large-scale spills and discharges, polluting a local creek and contaminating the soil and groundwater at the government complex.
According to the reports and comments from the NNSA, Y-12 still has a large stockpile of lithium — including lithium components taken from retired weapon systems — but the material has to be cleaned and converted to forms usable in refurbished weapons.
In a teleconference with reporters last week, NNSA officials said other sources of usable lithium had been identified as part of a "bridging strategy" to ensure needs are met between now and when a new production facility comes online.
NNSA Administrator Frank G. Klotz said an analysis of alternatives for lithium production is underway and should be completed by the end of the year.
Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com