Where nuclear weapons go to die

Obama wants a world without nuclear weapons. But what, exactly, do we do with all those warheads?

By Jeffrey Lewis and Meri Lugo

Speaking in Prague on April 5, U.S. President Barack Obama called the thousands of nuclear weapons sitting in world arsenals "the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War." He proposed deep cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles. But when policymakers talk about nuclear reductions, what do they mean in practice? After all, you can't just leave the warheads out on the curb on Tuesday morning for the garbage collector to pick up.

The first answer is, nothing much. Retiring a weapon is accomplished through paperwork. If the weapon is in storage, it continues to sit there. Eventually, small steps begin to indicate its fate on the nuclear weapons equivalent of death row. Workers come along to remove the batteries and other so-called "limited-life components" that have to be regularly changed in active nuclear weapons.

At some point -- perhaps years later -- the Energy Department ships the weapon to Pantex, the central U.S. nuclear weapons factory near Amarillo, Texas. It is a homecoming of sorts because the weapon was most likely built there. Disassembly is the assembly sequence in reverse, with each step occurring in a precise order over a few days to a few weeks, depending on the type of bomb or warhead.

The work is time-consuming and dangerous. The warheads now undergoing dismantlement were not designed to come apart -- other than very rapidly, over the Soviet Union. Because nuclear weapons contain explosives and other hazardous materials, workers must take care to minimize health risks, for example berylliosis -- a lung disease caused by inhalation of the toxic metal beryllium.

Pantex has about 40 operational bays and cells in which teams of workers can take apart nuclear weapons. The most sensitive operations occur in so-called "Gravel Gerties" -- concrete buildings covered with gravel. In the event of an explosion, the building would collapse in on itself, burying the hazardous materials -- and the workers, who would not have survived the blast. Once the nuclear weapon is disassembled, the remains can be stored for future use in different weapons (as in the case of plutonium pits) or disposed of (the explosives are incinerated).

During the Clinton administration, workers at Pantex managed to dismantle more than 1,000 warheads a year. But since 2000, workers at Pantex have spent more time refurbishing operational nuclear warheads to extend their service life, allowing the pace of dismantlement to dwindle to a fraction of its peak in the 1990s. In some years, Pantex has reportedly dismantled fewer than 100 warheads. With more than 4,000 nuclear weapons awaiting dismantlement, the queue at Pantex already stretches past 2030. And though the pace of dismantlement has picked up in recent years, the welcome prospect of further reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles only means that the queue will grow longer.

So, even if we agree to get rid of them, nuclear weapons will be with us for quite a while.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation. Meri Lugo is research intern at the New America Foundation.

TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images

Note: This article reflects a correction. In the original posting, it was incorrectly stated that retiring a weapon happens at the behest of the Department of Energy; this is not the case. We apologize for the error. 

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