SRTE Employees, Tritium Furnace

The Tritium Extraction Facility's target rod prep area at the Savannah River Site is pictured.

A previously unused industrial furnace at the Savannah River Site has been fired up, buttressing tritium operations there at a time when the related defense mission is expected to significantly expand.

The site, about 30 minutes south of Aiken, now has two furnaces to use in the tritium extraction process. This latest furnace was put into service sometime this year, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the lead contractor at the site, and the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous U.S. Department of Energy agency, announced Tuesday.

Tritium is a key part of modern nuclear weapons. The rare radioactive hydrogen isotope increases efficiency and yield – the boom, basically.

The Savannah River Site for decades has been the nation's only supplier of tritium for U.S. nuclear weapons. The gas is harvested from rods that were irradiated in a nuclear reactor. It can also be recycled.

From 2007 to 2017, only a single tritium extraction per year was done. But in 2017, three extractions were done. That was a first.

SRNS and the NNSA, the latter dedicated to weapons and related nonproliferation, in a joint statement described the extra furnace as "a stepping stone to readiness for the coming workload."

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions President and CEO Stuart MacVean last month told the S.C. Governor's Nuclear Advisory Council the tritium work at the site was a growing business. The intent, officials have said, is to reach eight tritium extractions per year around 2025.

The second furnace will help match the increasing demand, according to Wallis Spangler, the Savannah River Nuclear Solutions senior vice president for NNSA operations and programs.

In August, the Nuclear Weapons Council visited the Savannah River Site. The council – meant to interface related defense and energy projects – was briefed on plutonium pit production, another weapons mission, and tritium production.

Gen. John Hyten, then the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, applauded what was being done locally.

The NNSA manager at the Savannah River Site, Nicole Nelson-Jean, has said the Nuclear Weapons Council spent "an extensive amount of time" at the tritium facilities.

"So it was an extremely productive trip, and very positive overall," Nelson-Jean said, speaking at the same advisory meeting as MacVean.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin