Oct 10, 2008
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Energy Department moved ahead Thursday on further restricting the nation's most dangerous nuclear material, part of a plan to scale back and modernize management of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.
The department gave preliminary approval to an environmental impact study on the consolidation program, which includes limiting plutonium and highly enriched uranium to just five sites, compared with seven today. The government also would close 600 buildings and structures at the facilities and reduce the number of workers involved in weapons programs by 20 to 30 percent.
None of the seven primary weapons complex facilities, including three nuclear weapons research labs, will be closed. But activities will be combined, in many cases.
"The world is changing and we are changing along with it," said Thomas D'Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency within the Energy Department that oversees the weapons program.
"The number of U.S. nuclear weapons is shrinking, budgets are flat or declining and we need a smaller, more secure, more efficient infrastructure that reflects these realities, and yet retains our essential capabilities," D'Agostino said.
In a conference call from the government's Y-12 National Security Complex near Oak Ridge, Tenn., D'Agostino said the program will not require new money beyond the agency's five-year spending plan, and would save dollars in the future.
The next administration will have to carry out the effort. D'Agostino said he is "very comfortable" it will stand up to scrutiny.
A final go-ahead cannot be made for at least 30 days.
The agency already has taken nuclear material from the Sandia National Laboratory near Albuquerque, N.M., and will complete the transfers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco by 2012.
Plutonium stockpiles at Lawrence Livermore have concerned citizen groups because suburban neighborhoods have moved right up to the facility's boundary lines in recent years, causing more complicated security requirements.
The plan would:
_Focus uranium manufacturing, dismantlement and research at a new center within the Y-12 Oak Ridge complex.
_Concentrate manufacture of plutonium triggers and other plutonium research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The plan calls for making a maximum of 20 triggers a year.
_Continue to use the Pantex weapons facility near Amarillo, Texas, as the center for plutonium warhead assembly and disassembly as well as some warhead surveillance work now done at Lawrence Livermore. An underground storage facility would be built for plutonium triggers, reducing the size of the facility and cutting security costs.
_Concentrate tritium research and manufacture at the Savannah River complex near Aiken, S.C. Tritium is a gas use to boost the efficiency of a nuclear warhead. Excess plutonium also is being shipped to Savannah River for storage.
The other sites affected by the plan are the Nevada Test Site; Sandia, with locations in New Mexico and California; and the Kansas City Plant in Missouri.