Decades after the end of the Cold War, dismantling or updating thousands of retired nuclear warheads remains a huge task for the U.S. Storing the radioactive plutonium from the warheads continues to pose a security risk. In fact, one Department of Energy plant in Amarillo, Texas, is home to plutonium cores from thousands of dismantled nuclear warheads.

Scott J Paltrow covers dismantling warheads, storing the plutonium and related concerns for Reuters. He says the chances of such plutonium spontaneously causing a nuclear explosion in the storage facility in the Amarillo plant are small.

Radioactive contamination is possible, however. “Radiation from plutonium can be stopped by glass as thin as that in a test tube. It can be stopped by air or skin. The big danger is if workers or residents there inhale plutonium particles. In that case, it spreads through out the body, stays permanently and causes all kinds of cancers,” says Paltrow. 

“The Pantex facility in Amarillo is the only Department of Energy facility that actually removes the plutonium cores from warheads,” says Paltrow. “And it’s the only location that puts plutonium cores into new warheads.”

“The [cores] they take out were supposed to have been buried 2,000 feet underground, safely for all time,” Paltrow says.  Plutonium remains radioactive for hundreds of centuries. “But the US hasn’t been able to negotiate with the states to find [places to store it.]”

So, the plutonium just sits at Pantex.

“The maximum [Pantex] was allowed to hold was 20,000 warheads, but it now has exceeded that. The Energy Department has oversight of the facility” and the warheads says Paltrow. “Supposedly [the plutonium is] well protected. There is great worry that terrorists could find a way to get hold of it.”

The plutonium “is in the hands of the Energy Department because Congress decided after World War II that it should remain in civilian hands,” Paltrow explains. “It’s more a case of finding the proper locations underground and getting the right permissions both from the Federal government and the states.”  The best case would be to bury it 2,000 feet or more underground in salt veins. The salt would eventually collapse end entomb the plutonium forever.

Written by Christopher De Los Santos.

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