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AMA Globe-News

Pantex may hit storage limit in 2014

Plant may have to re-evaluate if Obama orders cuts in arms

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2009

Jim McBride

Pantex could reach storage capacity for plutonium weapons cores and retired nuclear warheads awaiting dismantlement by as early as 2014, two government reports reveal.

A federal official said the National Nuclear Security Administration may have to re-evaluate Pantex storage issues if President Obama orders further arms cuts, but the plant has no plan to exceed plutonium storage limits outlined in a 1997 environmental impact statement.

The Pantex Site Office instead has asked contractor B&W Pantex to develop a backup plan in case funding isn't available before 2013 to build a massive new underground warehouse for special nuclear materials, according to a report this month from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a watchdog agency that monitors safety issues at Pantex and other sites.

"Recent calculations had shown that capacity would be reached in the 2014 time frame. A re-analysis indicates that a few relatively inexpensive actions could increase the storage capacity," the report said.

The plan includes increasing storage capacity in some facilities, reclaiming other buildings now used for training and better coordinating weapons shipping schedules. Overall, the contingency plan "could add four or more years to the ability of Pantex to meet (special nuclear material storage) needs," the report said.

Pantex, which now stores more than 14,000 plutonium weapons cores, plans to build a new nuclear material storage complex and close its existing storage area.

Thousands of plutonium "pits," sealed cores of bomb-grade nuclear material, are now stored in a series of concrete bunkers patrolled by armed guards, surrounded by razor wire and monitored by sophisticated intruder-detection devices.

Pantex is authorized to store up to 20,000 pits, a threshold established under an environmental impact statement former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary signed in 1997.

A few years earlier, Pantex began secretly stockpiling plutonium after safety and environmental concerns halted plutonium production at the former Rocky Flats plant in Colorado.

"At this time there are no plans that assume that the Pantex storage threshold will be exceeded. It should be noted that since the (Environmental Impact Statement) approved by Secretary O'Leary in 1997, there have been announced substantial planned reductions in the nation's active nuclear stockpile," National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman Darwin Morgan said.

"Should there be a decision to explore the option to increase the storage of pits at Pantex, all appropriate environmental and planning processes will be complied with. At this time there are no plans to store or process any additional forms of special nuclear material at Pantex."

But Morgan said the NNSA might have to evaluate Pantex's storage if the Obama administration approves cuts in the nation's nuclear stockpile.

Cost figures for construction and operation of the proposed facilities have not been released to the public, but the NNSA has estimated it will save $25 million in its existing storage facility on the plant's north side.

A document contained in a 10-year Pantex site plan released last year said more storage space could be needed by fiscal year 2015 to house plutonium and warheads. The NNSA recently released its strategic plan and similar planning documents for other U.S. weapons facilities under a Freedom of Information lawsuit settlement reached with Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a Santa-Fe environmental group.

Some Pantex plutonium pits not needed for warheads will be converted into fuel for U.S. nuclear reactors at a South Carolina facility, but much of that special nuclear material will remain stored at Pantex indefinitely.

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