Sunday, August 29, 2010

It's Easy If All You Do Is Talk

Frank Munger explains what the Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge is doing to dismantle nuclear weapons. And there are a lot to dismantle; New START will bring down the number of deployed warheads to 1550 from the 6000 or so allowed by the START I treaty, which it supersedes, or the Moscow Treaty, which allowed 2200.

Building nuclear weapons isn't like turning out Toyotas; each warhead is hand-crafted, especially the final assembly, when fissionable material meets conventional explosive meets detonators. Taking them apart is pretty much the same thing, although sometimes more difficult. Weapons are made to destroy themselves, not to be taken apart again.

So the same sort of equipment, buildings, and trained people are needed to dismantle nuclear weapons as are needed to build them.

Most of the nuclear weapon facilities beyond the computational were built in the 1950s. Some have been partially upgraded at various times, but they are showing their age. Health and safety standards have tightened over the passage of fifty and more years. Those are the drivers behind the Obama administration's request for new facilities, particularly at Y-12, which handles enriched uranium, and the CMRR building at Los Alamos, which will handle plutonium. The difference between them is that the CMRR building will incorporate a research capability, and the handling of weapons parts will be done in the already-existing PF-4 plutonium facility.

The warheads that remain in the stockpile will need to be maintained, and these facilities will also do that. Further, in the unlikely case that the need arises, they will be able to build new warheads.

It's that last that bothers some people. While the Republicans are making noises about putting more money into these facilities before they agree to support New START, a few people are arguing that the facilities should never be built, that they are bomb factories pure and simple.

I keep wondering how those people think we are going to destroy the nukes that exist today. Those nukes are physical entities, and they contain dangerous materials, both in the sense of hazard to those around them and in the sense of needing to be kept away from those who would use them for destruction. Store them, and they will deteriorate. Bury them, and they will deteriorate faster. In either case, they will have to be guarded. Facilities for storage or burial would have to be built, probably at no less cost. There are already a great many pits stored at the Pantex facility, which does the initial disassembly.

The enriched uranium can be used in existing civilian power reactors. Already, half the electricity generated by nuclear power in the United States comes from former Soviet nuclear weapons. I'll leave the arguments about plutonium and mixed-oxide fuel to another post, but plutonium can be used in the same way once it is removed from weapons and processed into reactor fuel.

But if that is to be done safely, the plants that have a part in that process must be up to modern standards, which means new plants, as at Y-12. I keep wondering what alternatives the opponents would propose.

No comments: