By MARK BABINECK
A BRIEF HISTORY
A timeline of events at the Pantex Plant:
- 1942: Pantex Ordnance Plant built in a field between Amarillo and Panhandle, with the first conventional bombs produced less than 10 months after the Pearl Harbor attacks.
- 1945: Pantex closes as World War II ends.
- 1949: Texas Tech buys the parcel for $1; military retains the right to take it back.
- 1951: Pantex becomes part of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and evolves into the main assembly site.
- 1991: Soviet Union dissolves, Cold War ends. Pantex focus becomes warhead disassembly.
- 2007: Warhead disassembly accelerates, with an estimated 13,000-plus plutonium cores in storage. Plant is one of five candidates for production of next-generation plutonium pits.
PANHANDLE — The United States ran the Cold War arms race in a fortified pasture on Amarillo's outskirts.
The sprawling Pantex Plant is where workers put together nuclear warheads for decades, competing with the Soviets who were doing the same. But once the Iron Curtain fell, the plant kicked into reverse and became the primary atomic bomb disassembly site.
In the next few weeks, a unit of the Department of Energy is set to release a plan outlining the future of the nation's arsenal, envisioned to consist of 1,700 to 2,200 newly designed warheads. There's little question they, like their predecessors, will be assembled here.
Pantex also is one of five sites under consideration for a new "consolidated plutonium center" to process and build the lethal hearts of nuclear warheads — the plutonium cores that cause the mushroom-cloud detonations when properly triggered.
The cores, known as "pits," traditionally have been made at Los Alamos, N.M., and the now-defunct Rocky Flats Plant near Denver. That kind of work hasn't been done at Pantex, and the prospect of it coming to the Panhandle plains has resident anti-nuke activist Mavis Belisle gearing up like the old days.
"When you're talking about producing new plutonium or new plutonium cores, it doesn't matter where, we don't want it to happen at all," said Belisle, director of the Peace Farm, a 20-acre spread across the highway from the plant that has served as a permanent vigil against weapons of mass destruction since 1986.
There's plenty of local support, though. Gary Molberg wants to see them do a lot more at Pantex, which in addition to disassembly continues to maintain active weapons.
President and chief executive of the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce, Molberg is for anything that increases the size of the area's second-largest private employer, with an estimated 3,200 workers.
"The mission they're doing right now will continue on, and we hope they get some additional missions and have some expansion out there," he said.
The 'soap plant'
The 16,000-acre Pantex Ordnance Plant began in 1942 as a conventional weapons site, then closed once the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — both weapons built at Los Alamos — forced Japan's surrender in 1945. Texas Tech took over the property.
But with the Cold War raging in 1951, the Army reclaimed 10,000 acres and contractor Mason & Hanger remodeled the facility to assemble explosives for atomic bombs. Procter & Gamble operated it for a short time, prompting locals to refer to the secret operation as the "soap plant."
"Although everyone knew they didn't make soap," Belisle said.
By the 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission had taken over from the Army, making the plant's duties more obvious. Still, Pantex managed to keep a low profile despite the steady flow of conspicuous "white trains" ferrying new warheads out the gates.
Pantex drew unwanted scrutiny in March 1977 when three workers died in an accidental plastic explosives detonation, making the general public aware of its peculiar specialty. The Red River Peace Network started protesting outside the gates in the early 1980s, Belisle said, and the Peace Farm started across from the Pantex rail entrance in 1986.
Things changed fast after that. Rocky Flats closed in 1989, and the Cold War ended in 1991. The U.S. complex of nuclear weapons sites has been reinventing itself ever since.
"Right now, we have buildings that date back to 1945. They're crumbling, unsafe and inefficient," said John Broehm, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the DOE unit in charge of bomb-building. "Also, we have special nuclear material — plutonium, highly enriched uranium — spread out over seven of the eight sites. What we want to do is consolidate some of the special nuclear material, get rid of buildings, reduce the footprint physically.
"It's 1950s-1960s manufacturing versus 21st century manufacturing. You could do a lot more with a lot less space."
Speaking at a Department of Energy public hearing last year, Amarillo Mayor Debra McCartt testified that the estimated 13,000-plus warhead cores in storage (the exact figure is classified) means "virtually all of the nation's plutonium is already here at Pantex," so the site makes sense for a new plutonium operation.
"The department could not find a more congenial place for a proposed center," she added, noting high local approval ratings for Pantex in various polls.
Longtime Amarillo resident Allen Finegold wasn't so congenial. "We have no experience dealing with plutonium here. Rocky Flats had that experience. It wasn't a very good one," he said.
Rocky Flats ceased plutonium work after an FBI probe uncovered environmental violations that resulted in the discovery of rampant contamination and millions of dollars in fines and judgments against contractors. The massive cleanup was only certified as complete by the Environmental Protection Agency on June 11.
The government, which is trying to come up with a "Reliable Replacement Warhead" design that can be tested on a computer rather than physically, says it has learned from past mistakes.
"This design we know will last far into the future, components in there will last longer, that sort of thing," he said. "The weapon itself will be more secure, safer for workers and the environment."
Standing their ground
In 2004, President Bush called for the weapons stockpile to be halved by 2012. Beyond that, the idea is to substitute antiquated systems with the new models and maintain a tiny stockpile compared to the peak, which surpassed 32,000 in 1966.
The last time intensive plutonium work was proposed for Pantex was in the mid-1990s when it competed for a plant to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors. Belisle and others fought the so-called MOX fuel fabricator, in part citing existing aquifer contamination from World War II-era activities. The Savannah River Site in South Carolina won the plant.
Ironically, Belisle's preferred course for Pantex is for it to keep storing a growing cache of decommissioned plutonium cores, which she said is safer than transporting them half a continent away for MOX processing. While there's no risk of accidental nuclear explosion, Belisle worries that a mishap in transit could cause a release of radioactive plutonium.
She hasn't learned to love the bomb, only to live with it. And the Peace Farm will continue to joust with Amarillo's business elite and its nuclear neighbors over the site's future as long as troubling potential new tasks keep cropping up.
"We haven't really won any ground," she said, "but we haven't really lost any."