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Universal Tritium Transmitter

Joseph V. Cordaro, Mike Wood

Fusion Science and Technology

Volume 54 / Number 1 / July 2008 / Pages 170-173


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At the Savannah River Site and throughout the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) tritium is measured using Ion or Kanne Chambers. Tritium flowing through an Ion Chamber emits beta particles generating current flow proportional to tritium radioactivity. Currents in the 1x 10-15 A to 1x 10-6 A are measured. The distance between the Ion Chamber and the electrometer in NNSA facilities can be over 100 feet. Currents greater than a few microamperes can be measured with a simple modification. Typical operating voltages of 500 to 1000 Volts and piping designs require that the Ion Chamber be connected to earth ground. This grounding combined with long cable lengths and low currents requires a very specialized preamplifier circuit. In addition, the electrometer must be able to supply "fail safe" alarm signals which are used to alert personnel of a tritium leak, trigger divert systems preventing tritium releases to the environment and monitor stack emissions as required by the United States federal Government and state governments. Ideally the electrometer would be "self monitoring". Self monitoring would reduce the need for constant checks by maintenance personnel. For example at some DOE facilities monthly calibration and alarm checks must be performed to ensure operation. NNSA presently uses commercially available electrometers designed specifically for this critical application. The problems with these commercial units include: ground loops, high background currents, inflexibility and susceptibility to Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) which includes RF and Magnetic fields. Existing commercial electrometers lack the flexibility to accommodate different Ion Chamber designs required by the gas pressure, type of gas and range. Ideally the electrometer could be programmed for any expected gas, range and high voltage output. Commercially available units do not have "fail safe" self monitoring capability. Electronics used to measure extremely low current must have sufficient time to thermally equilibrate. Amplifiers, transistors, resistors all need time to stabilize before the electrometer circuit will measure accurately in the 10-15 and 10-14 ampere range. Existing electrometers give the user no indication when the unit has stabilized and is acceptable for low level measurements. Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) funded through the NNSA Plant Directed Research and Development (PDRD) program, has developed a truly Universal Tritium Transmitter (UTT) capable of solving many known problems with existing commercial electrometers. This UTT pushes the state-of-the-art in electrometer design and incorporates solutions to deficiencies found in commercial electrometers.

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