Pantex Plant

Nuclear 1995
Plutonium pit bunker
The Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas began operations in 1942. During the Second World War, its main function was to load conventional ordnance bombs and shells with explosive materials. This factory was decommissioned in 1945. In 1949, the government sold the plant to Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) for one dollar. The army required the site in 1951 at the request of the Atomic Energy Commission, so that the AEC could build a facility to assemble and disassemble nuclear weapons. Procter and Gamble was the operating contractor. The Mason and Hanger-Silas Mason Company, contracted to rehabilitate the facility, took over operating the plant in 1956 when Procter and Gamble declined to renew its five-year contract. In 1963, the AEC assumed full control of the site. In 1984, and again in 1989, several thousand additional acres were leased from Texas Tech as a security buffer.
Pantex has been the main facility to put together nuclear weapons components into the final product, having assembled almost all of the over 60,000 nuclear weapons produced in the United States. It has also been responsible for dissembling nuclear weapons, but the exact number involved is not clear because the lines between assembly and disassemble are blurred. The US Department of Energy has implied that some 50,000 nuclear weapons were permanently disassembly between 1945 and 1992 at Pantex, but in 1993, the DOE admitted that probably only 10,000 to 15,000 were actually permanently disassembled (emphasis added). Pantex has facilities for fabricating the non-nuclear high explosives that compress the plutonium trigger of a nuclear weapon. When a weapon is disassembled, the high explosive is removed to avoid an accidental detonation. The high explosives are burned in the open air in an area known as the burning ground.
Pantex has released both radioactive and non-radioactive hazardous materials into the environment. DOE reports only 134 cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste is buried at Pantex. This relatively small volume is explained by the fact that the plant ships most of its waste to other facilities in the US.
One of the main environmental concerns arising from Pantex is the potential contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer which is about 150 meters deep in the area of Pantex. To date, no contamination has been detected in the aquifer. However, a number of crucial water systems at Pantex have been contaminated, (emphasis added) and some evidence points to possible future contamination of the Ogallala.
Pantex has on-site, a continuous system of ‘perched’aquifers, comprising shallow, local zones of water. In 1993, the DOE reported that ground water sampling in one of the perched aquifers indicated the presence of various solvents, heavy metals, and high explosives, but the Department maintained that perched aquifers are "distinctly separate" from the Ogallala. However, a 1993 study found that "all recharging ground water that is perched" will eventually migrate "downward to the Ogallala aquifer"; and residents near the plant use this aquifer for drinking water and agriculture, although it is not used for these purposes on-site. Furthermore, a 1988 DOE study found that the release of waste chemicals to unlined waste pits from 1954 to 1980 posed a risk of migration into ground water, which would contaminate aquifers used for local water supplies. The study ranked this chemical contamination risk at Pantex among the greatest hazards in the overall US nuclear weapons complex. The chemicals involved include toluene, acetone, tetrahydrofurane, methanol, dimethylformamide, methyl ethyl ketone, perchlorate and ethanol.
There is also evidence of uranium releases into the environment at Pantex. According to a 1985 DOE report, uranium in vegetation samples at Pantex exceed background by 70 times, and uranium concentrations in the kidneys of jackrabbits on the site were four to six times greater than background.
Pantex officially stopped assembling nuclear weapons in the early 1990s. However, it continues to maintain existing weapons systems, and also dismantles them. In some cases, dissembled weapons may be refurbished and reassembled for subsequent deployment. Currently, activity at Pantex is centered on the dismantlement of nuclear weapons and the storage of plutonium pits.
Plutonium pits from dismantled warheads are accumulating rapidly at Pantex. In times past these pits were sent to the DOE’s Rocky Flats Plant near Denver Colorado for reworking into new warheads. Now that the mission at the Rocky Flats site has changed from production to clean-up, the pits are being stored at Pantex for what the DOE has called an "interim period". Since the long-term disposition of plutonium has yet to be firmly decided, the interim storage of thousands of plutonium pits at Pantex could stretch into the decades. As Pantex has not been designed as a plutonium storage facility, this practice as mandated by the DOE is highly dubious.
Excerpts from Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and It’s Health and Environmental Effects, Arjun Makhijani et al (eds.), The MIT Press, 1995.
Se også: Peace Farm ; Pinellas Plant, Largo, Florida.

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