Dismantling Nukes: as Serious a Task as Building Them

FEW if any of the millions of people who pressed for nuclear disarmament over the past four decades ever imagined that the fulfillment of their fondest dream would reveal a long-suppressed nightmare of environmental damage. But what the bomb has wrought even without its being dropped on anyone may take as much time, effort, and expense to repair as it took to build the weapons.

Over the next eight years, the Department of Energy (DOE) plans to dismantle as many as 14,000 nuclear warheads as it reduces the United States arsenal to 6,300 or less. The majority of these will be disassembled at Pantex, a 16,000-acre federal facility in the Texas Panhandle where the bombs were first assembled. Since the decision to close the Rocky Flats plant near Denver, Pantex has become the sole site for dismantling nuclear weapons and disposing of their byproducts. It is slated to become the stor age center for as much as 150,000 of the 220,000 pounds of plutonium manufactured by the US since 1944.

The technical challenge is daunting, almost inconceivable: to keep secure from terrorists, thieves, and the ravages of time, tons of the most toxic substance on earth. Publicly, Energy Secretary James Watkins expresses confidence that his department knows how to accomplish this, but many reputable scientists outside DOE disagree.

"There is no truly safe way to store plutonium," says Arjun Makhajani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md. "There are only ways to minimize the inevitable risks."

"All the options are dangerous," says a Senate aide familiar with both the science and the politics of the debate. Possibilities include storing the plutonium indefinitely in its present form (but where?), converting it to fuel for fast-breeder reactors (a technology with its own perils), transmuting it for use in an accelerator (a highly energy-intensive process), exploding it in pits beneath the desert (with uncertain hazards), and burying it beneath undersea tectonic plates (but what if they shift and

re-expose it?).

Then there is the expense. "For every dollar spent on producing these bombs, it will take two to four to dispose of their toxic wastes," estimates the same Senate aide. Total figures for cleaning up the US nuclear complex range from $150 billion to $300 billion over 30 years - a number that could double if one includes the bill for decommissioning 7,000 other contaminated sites in more than 20 states. CURIOUSLY, while the Bush administration has allotted $400 million to supervise the dismantling of th e Soviet nuclear arsenal, it has designated just $15 million in additional funds for dismantlement in this country. "They're anxious to disarm the Soviets, but not themselves," surmises Makhajani.

For Beverly Gattis and fellow members of STAND (Serious Texans Against Nuclear Dumping), DOE's plan to store its plutonium stockpile at Pantex is a bad surprise. She lives 16 miles from the plant and worries about what the storage of immense amounts of plutonium will do to the people and environment around it.

"Pantex is sitting on some of the very best farmland in this country," she says. "The Ogallala aquifer that supplies water to towns and farms from here all the way to South Dakota sits right under the plant. What is this plutonium going to do to the land, and to us?"

This is a conservative region and highly patriotic. As good citizens, Beverly and most other Amarillans welcomed the plant in the first place, benefited from the jobs it brought, and trusted in the government's assurances about its safety. Even now, she is ambivalent about questioning their word. "I'm glad the government's finally dismantling these bombs," she says, though she was never a peacenik. "I just want to be sure they're doing it safely. But the DOE won't let the public or any other agency inspe ct what they're doing. They have nothing to hide. So why are they so secretive?"

Where and how nuclear wastes will be stored for the 23 millennia required to detoxify them is both a severe challenge and a vexing political issue. Who will be willing to live century after century beside such an ultimate risk?

"There are people in Pantex walking around with a lot of plutonium in their bodies," says the Senate aide. "They're going to become a new class of nuclear untouchables ...."

The point is not to stop disarming (for once, we're moving in the right direction), but to insist on safe and responsible operation of the plant and rigorous oversight by the public and federal, state, and local agencies to assure compliance with strict health and environmental laws.

"The era of arms control is over," says the aide. "Now we're entering the brave new world of nuclear abolition." In this world, dismantling the bomb will take as much care and expense as was necessary to assemble it. Somehow we must defuse it without triggering a toxic holocaust. It is a task requiring extreme delicacy and dedication. "National sacrifice areas" like Pantex must come to be regarded as sacred places, held holy because we can't afford to let them be treated with anything less than the utmos t respect. The test of our wisdom as a civilization may rest in part on how well we learn to take care of the evil we have unearthed.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.