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U.S. Needs 15 Years to Dismantle Retired Warheads; Backlog Could Increase Under Obama

(May. 13) -Starting in 2014, the Pantex Plant in Texas is projected to start experiencing capacity problems for storing nuclear-weapon cores awaiting treatment (Texas Health Department photo). (May. 13) -Starting in 2014, the Pantex Plant in Texas is projected to start experiencing capacity problems for storing nuclear-weapon cores awaiting treatment (Texas Health Department photo).

The Obama administration is pursuing new nuclear arsenal reductions, but the United States is expected to need until 2024 to eliminate 4,200 nuclear warheads already slated for dismantlement, USA Today reported today (see GSN, May 12).

Elimination of the plutonium from the weapons is also expected to require billions of dollars worth of additional infrastructure and to end sometime after 2030. That, too, is before any additional material that would have to be addressed through further U.S. nuclear cuts.

"Constructing various facilities to store fissile material and convert it to civilian reactor fuel "is expensive ... (and) is going to take a long time," said former National Nuclear Security Administration head Linton Brooks. "That doesn't stop the president from taking more warheads off missiles and bombers and (adding to) to the backlog. It means the queue gets a lot longer."

Beginning in 2014, the Pantex Plant in Texas would begin experiencing capacity problems for its mission of storing plutonium weapon cores that are awaiting treatment, the Energy Department inspector general concluded in an audit made public in March. A planned $4 billion facility that would convert the plutonium "pits" into reactor fuel is not scheduled for completion until 2021, and Washington has not chosen a location for the site.

Another $4.8 billion facility being erected at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to convert weapon-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide reactor fuel is not expected to begin work for another seven years (see GSN, May 4).

The Obama administration has asked Congress to increase weapon dismantlement spending to $84 million for fiscal 2010, a 5 percent boost. Still, the time needed to disassemble the backlogged warheads and any additional decommissioned items would hinge on how many weapons the administration decides to remove from the active stockpile, said NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino.

A nuclear posture review slated for release this fall would provide direction on storage and disposal facilities that are needed in addition to the existing sites, he said.

"There are infrastructure hurdles, but ... until that review is done, substantial infrastructure changes would be premature, I'm very impressed with the dismantlement rate," D'Agostino said, noting that the speed of dismantlement has increased more than 150 percent since 2006.

Still, the Bush administration eliminated U.S. nuclear warheads at the slowest rate since the 1950s, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"No effort has really been made to transform (the nuclear weapons program) to meet the mission of nuclear weapons elimination," says Robert Alvarez, a former high-level Energy Department adviser now at the Institute for Policy Studies. Funding has "gone mostly to maintain what we now recognize is an oversized nuclear stockpile," he said (Peter Eisler, USA Today, May 13).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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