Nov 2, 2007
The federal government will unveil its preferred plans for the future nuclear weapons complex later this fall, but a final decision won't be made until next summer, a top official said Wednesday.
Under National Nuclear Security Administration plans, Pantex and four other sites are candidates for a new facility that would manufacture plutonium weapons cores and conduct nuclear materials research and development.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and NNSA Administrator Tom D'Agostino visited Pantex Wednesday to praise employees here for their work on finishing some major projects. Bodman left Pantex earlier Wednesday, but D'Agostino said the NNSA is now wrapping up a draft environmental impact study that will lay out government plans for the future warhead production network.
"My vision is have a much smaller, much more efficient, safer nuclear weapons complex," D'Agostino said.
Pantex is expected to dismantle more warheads in the coming decade. The NNSA also will evaluate whether to consolidate high explosives research here or transfer the work elsewhere and possibly expand nuclear materials storage. The plant now stores more than 14,000 plutonium weapons cores - dubbed pits - in a series of underground bunkers called Zone 4.
About two years ago, the Defense Department raised concerns about NNSA's ability to meet critical deadlines on several weapons programs, D'Agostino said, but Pantex workers have played a key role in meeting those goals.
Earlier this year, Pantex assembled the first rebuilt W88 nuclear warhead to use a replacement plutonium pit since safety issues shut down plutonium production at the former Rocky Flats facility nearly 20 years ago.
The warhead is deployed on submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
"We dismantled warheads at a rate three times faster than we had expected," D'Agostino said. "We built the W88 pits. We delivered them here to Pantex and installed them in the W88 warhead, which is important for our submarine deterrent. We're here today to celebrate really the work that's been done here."
Pantex, he said, recently completed a backlog of weapons surveillance activities aimed at ensuring weapons are safe and reliable. Employees here worked closely with weapons labs to establish safe dismantlement procedures and test components from aging warheads.
"It's kind of like checking your battery in your automobile to make sure that it's still working," D'Agostino said. "It's changing the air filter. It's taking a look at things to see how they change over time."
D'Agostino foresees stable employment at Pantex for several years as the plant grapples with a growing dismantlement workload.
"I don't see employment levels changing dramatically, either up or down," he said.
In a related development, the NNSA announced Wednesday it has completed U.S-funded security upgrades at a Russian missile base in Siberia.
Now that the missile bases in Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces are more secure, a top NNSA official said the chance of unauthorized access to Russian nuclear weapons is greatly reduced.
"We remain dedicated to working as quickly as possible to secure nuclear weapons and other dangerous materials in Russia and around the world to prevent unauthorized access," said William Tobey, NNSA deputy administrator for defense - nuclear nonproliferation.
[Tom looks a lot less scary next to The Terminator, don't you think?]