WASHINGTON — Most nuclear reactors in the United States rely on a type of lithium that is produced only by China and Russia, and the supply may be drying up, according to a study to be released on Wednesday.
The Government Accountability Office said the looming shortage of a material critical to the operation of 65 out of 100 American nuclear reactors “places their ability to continue to provide electricity at some risk,” a conclusion echoed by outside experts. The problem reflects the withering away of the American industrial infrastructure of all things nuclear, and the nation’s dependence on distant places for “energy-critical materials,” including “rare earth” materials used in high-efficiency motors, and other materials used in solar cells. Producing these generally involves environmentally damaging processes, one reason that production has moved abroad.
The material in potentially short supply is specifically lithium-7, which is what is left over when it is separated from another form, lithium-6, which can be used to make tritium, the hydrogen in the hydrogen bomb. The two forms, called isotopes, are chemically identical, although lithium-7 has one additional neutron.
The equipment needed to separate lithium-6 from lithium-7 is mostly a cold war leftover. The United States shut down almost all of its machinery in 1963, when it had a huge surplus, now mostly consumed. It has not had to make much tritium in the last few years because its nuclear weapons inventory is shrinking.
Per Peterson, the chairman of the nuclear engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley, said it would be “pragmatic” for the United States to re-establish the ability to separate lithium-6 from lithium-7 — although the G.A.O. report said it would take five years and $10 million to $12 million. Dr. Peterson said the American utilities could protect themselves by soliciting bids from companies that could do the work in this country, and signing purchase agreements.
Read more at Report Says a Shortage of Nuclear Ingredient Looms