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Crisis in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Part 4 – All Roads Lead To Pantex

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
August 19, 2022

This is the fourth column in a series regarding the unfolding, unprecedented crisis in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex (NWC) (the first column on how U.S. budget politics since 1969 have damaged the NWC is here; the second on how nuclear weapons ended exponentially deadly warfare among the great powers is here; the third column on issues with manufacturing plutonium “pits” is here). This column discusses the facility where the challenges facing the NWC come to a head: the PANTEX Plant located in the Texas Panhandle (for fans of the Tom Hanks movie, “Cast Away,” PANTEX is located very near the desolate crossroads where the movie begins and ends).

The diagram accompanying this article (source) shows the central role PANTEX plays in the NWC: It is where all components of nuclear weapons are shipped to be assembled into bombs. PANTEX is also where conventional explosives are manufactured to be used in the fission primary of each bomb. The Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge National Laboratory manufactures the fusion secondary components (Canned Secondary Assemblies) to be inserted into the finished bombs along with the U238 metal casings for the bombs. My next column will discuss the effects of deferred maintenance and other forms of neglect at Y-12.

To be blunt, PANTEX is a hot mess. One set of problems pertains to the United States lacking a proper storage depot for the 35 metric tons of plutonium accumulated from dismantling tens of thousands of bombs over the past decades. PANTEX, where those bombs were dismantled, was not designed for this purpose nor is it located appropriately for keeping so much plutonium safe from environmental hazards. In 2010, the facility experienced a flood that threatened the plutonium storage areas. Plutonium and water should never mix; if you remember your high school chemistry experiment of mixing sodium and water, that ensuing reaction is just a hint of the explosive fire that occurs when plutonium becomes wet. Plutonium fires are nearly impossible to extinguish and highly toxic to human health. Such a fire at PANTEX could become a crisis on par with Chernobyl. Recent safety reviews continue to criticize the U.S. Department of Energy for not repairing issues that continue to allow PANTEX to be environmentally vulnerable.

Another set of problems pertains to long-term exposure to beryllium among workers at PANTEX. Beryllium is used in the assembly of the fission component of a nuclear weapon; it is an effective neutron reflector that helps increase the efficiency of the fission “burn”. Beryllium is also toxic. Workers exposed to beryllium dust without appropriate safety gear develop long-term grievous health issues which is exactly what transpired at PANTEX across the course of the Cold War. During the intense nuclear weapons build-up of the 1950s and 1960s, the NWC consistently sacrificed the environment and worker safety in the interest of national security. That pattern continued at PANTEX through the 1990s as workers there became ill from exposure to beryllium.

The combination of deferred maintenance, lax attention to worker safety and increasing possibilities of environmental disaster has created the same problem currently afflicting plutonium activities at Los Alamos National Labs: PANTEX is at risk of losing its experienced, skilled workforce and having serious difficulties recruiting replacements. Remember, the personnel at PANTEX go to work every day either to dismantle or build functioning nuclear weapons. This is hardly an appropriate setting for the issues PANTEX currently is experiencing.

A final concern about PANTEX is its security against espionage and terrorism. Despite the remote location and relative obscurity from the public eye—so obscure that a former governor of Texas who became U.S. Secretary of Energy seemed not to know PANTEX exists—PANTEX and the entire NWC recently have been criticized for poor attention to security. Unlike the other sites within the NWC, however, PANTEX alone is where an unauthorized intrusion could result in access to a functioning nuclear weapon. This vulnerability adds to the costs piling up around the NWC to make the complex fully functional at a time when the United States is making plans to build an entire new generation of weapons to replace the thousands that will have to go out of service.

During the first George W. Bush Administration, the Department of Energy considered the possibility of scrapping the existing NWC and building a single, consolidated site to manufacture nuclear weapons in the 21st century. Among the current nuclear states, only the United States and Russia persist in having such decentralized complexes. That is the legacy of World War II and the Cold War including completely ineffective efforts to prevent espionage by locating NWC sites in relatively obscure parts of the United States. (Richland, WA; Los Alamos, NM; Oak Ridge, TN). It is time to reconsider the idea of building a new NWC given the problems already discussed in this series of columns. I will turn again to that option in the final column of the series to be published later this year.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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