of art by or about gays and information about gays in schools and libraries. J.C. Pantex pitches plutonium storage AMARILLO A Panhandle fundraising dinner for Representative Bill Sarpalius was the occasion for Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary to announce that the Pantex nuclear weapons complex near Amarillo will be the site of a national research laboratory to study new uses for plutonium, the radioactive element used in nuclear warheads. Sarpalius, an Amarillo Democrat, was one of several undecided members of the Texas Congressional delegation that the Clinton Administration was trying to persuade to vote in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The lab planned for Pantex was praised by Governor Ann Richards, who attended the Sarpalius fundraiser. “We are going to have the chance to examine if there are better, more sophisticated and safer ways to do the things that are necessary when you are dealing with a highly volatile material, as they are at Pantex;” Richards said during a news conference after O’Leary’s announcement. Few details about the lab, such as the number of jobs it could create, were released, although it was revealed that the federal government is committed to providing at least $60 million to fund it during the next five years. The DOE made the decision about the lab without public input, despite its commitment of more openness, said Mavis Belisle, a spokeswoman for the Peace Farm, an Amarillo-based organization advocating arms control. Belisle protested O’Leary’s announcement by wearing a pig suit and carrying .a sign that read, “Even in beef country we know pork when we see it.” Belisle said, “This is a decision that was made, again, the same old way, behind closed doors and without any public participation.” A three-university consortium that is promoting research on plutonium at Pantex is in a position to benefit from the DOE decision, and representatives of University of Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech members of the consortium were in Amarillo when O’Leary’s made her announcement. The consortium’s proposal contains two major thrusts: addressing environmental concerns about dismantling nuclear warheads and studying of peaceful uses of nuclear components and high explosives, said Dale E. Klein, associate dean for research and professor of mechanical engineering at UT-Austin. Lab or no lab, major decisions involving plutonium stored at Pantex will be made in the coming months and years. By early next year, Pantex will run out of storage space for the element. But that doesn’t mean the plutonium, a highly radioactive metal removed from warheads dismantled at Pantex, will be shipped elsewhere. Plant officials are proposing methods to fit more barrels of the nuclear component into earth-covered concrete bunkers at the plant. Recent arms reduction initiatives and the volume of weapons proposed for dismantlement during the 1990s have relegated Pantex to its position as an interim storage site for plutonium. The plant is scheduled to dismantle 1,000 to 2,000 nuclear warheads every year for the next five or more years, according to Department of Energy figures. Pantex, which became the nation’s only assembly/disassembly plant when its sister plant in Burlington, Iowa, closed in 1975, no longer assembles nuclear weapons. The bulk of components of dismantled weapons are shipped back to the facilities from which they came. But Pantex quit returning plutonium to the Rocky Flats weapons plant near Denver when that plant’ s mission changed in 1989 from plutonium processing to environmental cleanup after the extent of contamination at Rocky Flats was revealed.It is now left to Pantex to remove and store all of the weapons grade plutonium before returning components. Today, between 5,000 and 6,000 plutonium pits are stored at Pantex. Plutonium is a highly toxic radioactive element that can be fatal if inhaled or ingested in minute quantities but which has limited ability to be absorbed through skin. It remains highly radioactive for 24,000 years. A plutonium pit, which resembles a bowling ball, is plutonium, the material used to produce a nuclear detonation, surrounded by nonradioactive metal sphere. After they are removed from warheads, pits are packed in stainless steel containers that resemble 55gallon drums. They are now stored in 18 earth-covered concrete and steel igloos called Modified Richmond Magazines, which are watched by armed guards 24 hours a day. But space is at a premium. The DOE has proposed storing as many as 20,000 pits at Pantex. The Energy Department’s contractor at Pantex, Mason & Hangar-Silas Mason Co. Inc., has proposed a new storage plan that would involve stacking containers on top of each other to increase space in the igloos. Currently, the drums are stored on the floor without stacking. Plant officials also are waiting for DOE approval of using 42 other igloos on the plant site for plutonium storage. The environmental impact of interim plutonium storage at Pantex remains a point of contention. Watchdog groups and farmers living near the plant the fear that the radioactive material used to produce a nuclear detonation will contaminate the water and soil. They are particularly concerned that Pantex will contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala, which extends from Nebraska through the Texas High Plains and dwarfs Central Texas’ Edwards Aquifer, provides 25 percent of the nation’s irrigation water. According to an environmental assessment report published by the DOE in December 1992, storage of up to 20,000 plutonium pits at Pantex would pose no significant environmental impact to the aquifer, to workers or to communities in the region. The DOE-generated report, however, has drawn widespread criticism. “The report creates the impression of providing a detailed analysis . . . while at the same time withholding some of the essential data on which those calculations are based,” said University of Texas physics professor Thomas A. Griffy in a letter to the state’ s environmental policy division, which sought comments on the DOE report. Dozens of environmental, health and scientific experts wrote to the state, questioning DOE’s methodology and conclusions in the report. Others living near the plant sent more emotional letters. “I have been an observer of the “Pantex mentality” and the “Pantex work ethic” for many years,” wrote Jeri Osborne who lives on a farm near Pantex. “I have often seen ‘damned if I care’ attitude portrayed by workers at the plant,” she wrote. Attorney General Dan Morales also questioned the validity of the report. In a March 19 letter to DOE Secretary O’Leary, Morales called it “deficient” and said it “failed to adequately assess the risk of dismantling thousands of nuclear warheads and storing the plutonium pits at Pantex” and did little to allay concerns about safety. The attorney general called the report’s conclusions a ‘post hoc’ rationalization of a DOE decision to turn Pantex into the de facto storage facility for plutonium, rather than the product of a ‘hard look’ at the consequences of DOE’s dismantling and storage activities.” The DOE released its responses to questions and criticisms during O’Leary’s visit to Amarillo. In a voluminous report, the DOE essentially stands by its original statements that interim storage of plutonium at Pantex poses no serious threat to health and safety of plant workers, surrounding residences or to the Ogallala Aquifer. O’Leary will give the final word whether to proceed with alternative storage proposals for the pits, said Gerald Johnson, area manager of the DOE’s Amarillo office. “If we would continue dismantlement at the current rate and we could not expand beyond the 18 Richmond type igloos that we have authorization for right now, it would be sometime in … January, February or March of next year [when we reach our capacity],” Johnson said during an October 28 media tour of Pantex. If capacity is reached without approval for multiple stacking of the plutonium, dismantlement at Pantex would cease, Johnson said. He declined to specu THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.