The bomb that won't go away

Issue 

Dismantling the Bomb
The Cutting Edge
SBS, Tuesday, July 25, 8.30pm (8 in SA)
Previewed by Lisa Macdonald

"From day one, when we first produced plutonium in this country, we never had an option for its disposal. The notion always was that we were at war, the production of nuclear warheads was the ... paramount thing ... The disposal option was always considered something that would be done down the road."

This statement by Victor Rezendes, director of Energy and Science at the US General Accounting Office, indicates the huge problem now confronting the US (and all nuclear powers).

In 1991 Russia and the US agreed to reduce their atomic stockpiles from a total of over 70,000 weapons to under 7000 by the year 2003. Dismantling the Bomb documents that this task is not only proving almost impossible to carry out, but that there is far from an international scientific or political consensus on how to proceed.

While the world was shown film footage of the destruction of nuclear missiles after the 1991 agreement, what we were never shown was what happened to the plutonium "pits" — the cores of the atomic bombs. What we actually saw was the destruction of empty missile cases.

The vast bulk of enriched uranium and plutonium produced for nuclear weapons over the last 50 years — at least 250 tonnes of plutonium and 1000 tonnes of enriched uranium — still exists. Dismantling the Bomb reveals that no-one has developed the technology for dealing with a substance with a half-life of 24,000 years.

None of the options currently being discussed (including using it for nuclear fuel, burying it somewhere on earth, putting it into space, dumping it in the sun or converting it into isotopes which cannot be used for weapons and storing it somewhere safe for a quarter of a million years!) comprehensively address the dangers posed by nuclear waste.

In the meantime, this deadly stockpile is in "storage" as scientists and politicians debate the next steps. For over 40 years, Pantex, just outside of Amarillo, Texas, has been the final assembly point for most of the US's atomic bombs. Today it is one of the biggest nuclear storage depots in the world, housing 7000-8000 plutonium "pits" in above-ground concrete bunkers originally built for conventional weapons storage in 1942.

With the prospect of up to 20,000 plutonium pits in storage at Pantex by the year 2000, Rezendes points to a number of alarming safety and contamination concerns at the 17 dismantling facilities on the site. The US Department of Energy's response that there is a "one in a million chance that something will go wrong" is far from reassuring.

In Russia, the economic crisis which has followed the collapse of the Soviet Union makes the situation even worse. Nuclear weapon-laden ships and submarines are sinking to the bottom of harbours before the uranium and plutonium can even be removed.

Yet another problem addressed in Dismantling the Bomb is the increasing sale of uranium on the open market. Even if the plutonium used in weapons was eradicated from the globe, there would still exist 1000 tonnes of reactor-grade plutonium — that used in the roughly 400 nuclear power stations and the main source of the plutonium on the market today.

Reactor-grade plutonium can and has been used to construct nuclear weapons. For so long as there are nuclear power plants in operation, the potential for nuclear bombs production will remain, regardless of the progress made in dismantling existing weapons.

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