Disposal of Warhead Plutonium Awaits Federal Study of Options

AS Pentagon officials grapple with the hazards of unexploded bombs and land mines, the Department of Energy is trying to decide how to dispose of over 10,000 pounds of one of the most powerful explosives on earth - plutonium.

The radioactive substance the department uses to make atomic bombs poses massive security and environmental risks. Only ten pounds are needed to make a crude atomic bomb, and plutonium remains radioactive for 24,000 years.

The Energy Department has spent hundreds of millions of dollars studying the problem, but a final disposal plan is not expected until 1996. Congressional critics say the department's progress has been ``torpid, at best'' and are demanding that the Clinton administration address plutonium disposal immediately.

``Excess weapons plutonium, particularly in the former Soviet states, is a national security problem for the United States of utmost concern,'' Senator J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana said during Senate hearings on the issue last month. ``Stringent safeguards are needed to make sure that none of this material falls into the wrong hands.''

Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary said in an interview that no final decision will be made until a legally mandated study of the environmental impact of plutonium disposal is completed in March 1995. ``We will have a broad display of technical options and locations available [then],'' Secretary O'Leary said. ``You don't want to spend money until you're clear what avenue you are following.''

The department is considering temporarily storing its excess plutonium on military bases for the next 10 to 20 years. Experts estimate that storing and guarding the plutonium for 10 years will cost $2 billion to $3 billion.

O'Leary predicts that a pact reached between the Energy Department and its Russian counterpart will lead to stricter plutonium controls in Russia. Spurred by post-cold war disarmament, the US and Russia are believed to have 50 metric tons of excess plutonium each.

``We have just negotiated an agreement to allow [mutual] site inspections,'' O'Leary says, ``which really is the beginning of entering agreements on [plutonium] materials monitoring and control.''

Most excess US plutonium is stored at the Energy Department's Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas. Some 6,000 plutonium warhead triggers are currently stored at the facility, which dismantles nuclear weapons. O'Leary has agreed to limit plutonium storage at Pantex in the face of legal challenges.

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