Bomb Plant Restart A Misguided Move
IGNORING the end of the cold war, the Bush administration is planning to restart a key nuclear weapons production facility experts say isn't safe and may not be necessary. Building bombs, it seems, has been left on autopilot.The Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado is the only facility in the country that manufactures the plutonium "pits" used in thermonuclear weapons. It has been shut down since November 1989 because of environmental, safety, and health concerns. A Senate committee recently approved new controls that would grant two independent oversight boards power to stop the restart if they decided the plant could not be operated safely. Despite this positive move, the Bush administration insists the plant must be restarted this fall and run for 10 to 20 years until it can be relocated. Restart advocates plead that national security is at risk if new bombs are not immediately added to our current stockpile of 20,000 nuclear warheads. In today's world, however, our security is threatened more by the rush to restart Rocky Flats. In the creation of thousands of plutonium pit cores for warheads, plutonium has been released into the soil and surface water, threatening the population of Denver. More plutonium waste is stored on site in drums without the proper federal permits. The United States Department of Energy (DOE) has no long-term storage repository that can meet necessary environmental requirements, so the plant would have to shut down within months of the restart for lack of any place to store the new waste. Further, buildings have major structural deficiencies and cannot meet safety codes. Plutonium lodged in building ventilation ducts poses potential occupational, safety, and public health dangers, as well as the low risk of a spontaneous nuclear reaction. Department of Energy Secretary James Watkins promised in June 1990 he would not restart the Rocky Flats Plant until it complied with "the nation's environmental laws." However, documents recently made public reveal that DOE and the plant contractor, EG&G, have sought exemptions from dozens of safety and environmental regulations in order to restart. The military argues that the country needs Rocky Flats to build safer and more destructive nuclear warheads and thus maintain national security. But we hardly need those warheads to make us more secure. The START treaty, now complete and heading for ratification, will reduce the number of US warheads by almost a third. The end of the cold war, changes in the Soviet Union, and the prospect of future arms reduction undermine the urgency for new nuclear warheads. Also, a technique designed to reuse the plutonium pits of retired weapons in new delivery systems is now being developed. If perfected, delivery systems such as the Trident II submarine mis sile could be outfitted with a warhead constructed from materials used in its predecessor. This could eliminate the need for plutonium fabrication at Rocky Flats. Colorado's congressional delegation has long been concerned about the restart of Rocky Flats but now the prospect has caught the attention of lawmakers outside the state. Fiscal conservatives are worried about the $1 billion DOE plans to spend to renew operations in the next two to three years. Environmentalists oppose DOE's plans to exempt the plant from existing environmental laws. And defense experts are finding it difficult to justify the need for new nuclear bombs. Yet the Bush administration remains intent on running the nuclear weapons complex on autopilot. Let's hope members of Congress are able to pull the plug - and stop the rush to restart Rocky Flats.