Plutonium stockpile raises questions about disposal

November 15, 1993|By New York Times News Service

In 16 concrete bunkers built by the Army for a war with Hirohito and Hitler, the United States has begun assembling about 50 tons of plutonium, a vast stockpile of one of the most expensive materials ever produced and perhaps the most important to safeguard. The Department of Energy says the World War II bunkers, each about the size of a two-car garage, are going to be used for interim storage, meaning six or seven years.

But plutonium, which was invented by the Energy Department's predecessor, the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb, may turn out to be the hardest thing on earth to dispose of.

And at the Energy Department, "interim" can have an elastic meaning. "Immediate" tends to mean several years. "Several years" can mean never.

President Clinton announced the formation of an interagency task force on Sept. 27 to consider how much plutonium the nation needs in the post-Soviet era and how to dispose of what is surplus.

The Energy Department is drawing up a disposal plan for its far-flung weapons production complex for the next century and an environmental impact statement for the whole weapons program. The National Academy of Sciences is also studying the question.

But the officials' choices are limited to a short list of unattractive options.

At the plant where the plutonium is piling up, Pantex, near Amarillo, Texas, Rich Loghry, the general manager, said when asked what would happen next: "I don't think people have a really good answer for what is going to happen to the plutonium."

Developing a consensus may take years, and in the meantime there is "interim storage."

Storage, in fact, may be the leading option, but even this is tricky. Plutonium loses half its radioactivity every 24,000 years, so it will reach background levels of radioactivity in 10 "half-lives," or 240,000 years; the U.S. political system is focused largely on problems that can be solved in less than four.

In the short term, storage is affordable. Pantex's budget is $210 million, much of it for security.

Plutonium is more expensive than gold, although the cost of an ounce is difficult to calculate, since the price includes the cost of cleanup, and that has not been paid yet. Tens of billions of dollars will be required to clean up messes in South Carolina and the state of Washington that were left behind by plutonium production.

Plutonium is more important to safeguard than is gold; stolen gold can't blow up a city. One solution might be to put it at the very center of Fort Knox, and leave the gold at the periphery, to distract thieves.

The utilities do not even want to discuss taking the plutonium. Executives complain that such discussions only reinforce the public's association of nuclear power with nuclear war.

Besides, lightly enriched uranium, which they use now, is cheap.

Also, using plutonium in a reactor licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would mean holding a public hearing, something utilities view with distaste verging on phobia.

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